July 30th, 2008

Three Cups of Tea: The Proper Promotion of Peace


photo credit: KamiSyed

The movies I enjoy the most are the ones where you forget that you’re sitting in the theater. You become so enveloped by the plot that you’re seemingly sucked into the events that transpire around you. You share in the protagonist’s successes and feel their pains. Rarely have I come across a book that can pull off this feat.

Three Cups of Tea is a book that did just that for me. It’s masterfully written, and full of plot twists, setbacks, and surprises that might lead you to think it’s a fictional story. Instead, it’s the chronicles of one Greg Mortenson, a former mountaineer who became lost on a hike up K2 in the early 1990s. After recuperating in a remote Pakistan village named Korphe, Mortenson witnessed the circumstances in which the village’s children were educated:

…the children sat in a neat circle and began copying their multiplication tables. Most scratched in the dirt with sticks they’d brought for that purpose. The more fortunate, like Jahan, had slate boards they wrote on with sticks dipped in a mixture of mud and water. “Can you imagine a fourth-grade class in America, alone, without a teacher, sitting there quietly and working on their lessons?” Mortenson asks. “I felt like my heart was being torn out. There was a fierceness in their desire to learn, despite how mightily everything was stacked against them. . . . I knew I had to do something.

Do something he did. He placed his hands on the village chief’s shoulders and promised him that he would return to build them a school. After a failed attempt at scaling one of the world’s highest peaks, Mortenson’s failures continued to stack against him as well. Fundraising was very slowgoing, and his own living conditions were pitiful. But with eventual sponsorship and financial support, he began his work and started construction.

As the years progressed, so did certain strains of extremist groups in neighboring communities. Mortenson witnessed madrassas, financed by Saudi Arabians, explode around him. Many of these schools were hotbeds for extremists and jihadism. Undaunted, he remained convinced that a balanced education was what these children needed most:

“The only way we can defeat terrorism is if people in this country where terrorists exist learn to respect and love Americans,” Mortenson concluded, “and if we can respect and love these people here. What’s the difference between them becoming a productive local citizen or a terrorist? I think the key is education.”

Later briefing some military officials at the Pentagon, he continued his claim:

“I’m no military expert,” Mortenson said. “And these figures might not be exactly right. But as best as I can tell, we’ve launched 114 Tomahawk cruise missiles into Afghanistan so far. Now take the cost of one of those missles tipped with Raytheon guidance systems, which I think is about $840,000. For that much money, you could build dozens of schools that could provide tens of thousands of students with a balanced nonextremist education over the course of a generation. Which do you think will make us more secure?”

Given America’s continual pursuit of military force as a means of creating peace, it seems that these words fell on deaf ears at the Pentagon. So, despite warnings from the State Department that he was heading into one of the most dangerous places on Earth, Mortenson went back to work doing what he does best: giving impoverished children an opportunity to receive a balanced education. Some might argue that this plan does little to abate the problem of terrorism in the short term, but the respect that this single individual has garnered in the region is undeniable. Jon Krakauer, introducing Mortenson at a fundraising event for the Central Asia Institute, made mention of this reality:

What Greg has accomplished, with very little money, verges on the miraculous. If it were possible to clone fifty more Gregs, there is no doubt in my mind that Islamic terrorism would quickly become a thing of the past.

Short term benchmarks aside, it cannot be emphasized enough that the long term benefits of such charity work are worth our investment. Extremism may continue in all its stripes for the next few years, but by arming the upcoming generation with a balanced education and an opportunity to excel, we eradicate the problem for a fraction of the cost of what we’re currently spending on bombs and bullets.

Peace is a worthy goal, but its proper pursuit must be grounded upon solid principles. We cannot lift others through force, but instead must use the principles of example, charity, and love to instill in others the qualities that we have found to be positive and long-lasting. Greg Mortenson’s life mission is one worthy of emulation, and is one proven method to give children an alternative to war and terrorism. Three Cups of Tea, the story of his work, is an excellent handbook for the budding philanthropist. In it we learn that despite repeated failures and setbacks, eventual success is guaranteed so long as our hearts are pure and our intentions noble.

7 Responses to “Three Cups of Tea: The Proper Promotion of Peace”

  1. Connor
    July 30, 2008 at 1:08 pm #

    For a great discourse on peace, check out then-Elder Eyring’s “Blessed are the Peacemakers“.

  2. Clumpy
    July 30, 2008 at 9:54 pm #

    Understanding that our enemies are living, breathing people who have headaches, irritating cousins and favorite foods is the first step to surrender!

    *Whoa!* What happened there? For a minute there I thought that I was Michael Savage.

    I’m with you on this, by the way. We’re spending something like 1/3rd of our nation’s taxes on military stuff (and many people think that is too little). Christians who want to buy boomsticks and bombs to use on people who happen to have been born outside the country while complaining about the relatively small amount of money distributed within the country in social programs are living with a pretty darned disingenuous philosophy. (It’s not either position that’s terrible, necessarily, but the combination of the two that I find supremely ironic.)

    We’ve let the mask of “patriotism” give us license to get attached to symbols and a stupid, immature rivalry with the rest of the world. This lets us ignore real problems with a sense of self-justification. If the souls of Islam had been born here and we’d all been raised in the Middle East I bet you’d find about the same percentage of terrorists among us (not really “Jihadists” though; Westerners tend to misapply that term because we’re generally exposed only to the militaristic aspect of the “glorious struggle” for virtue).

  3. July 31, 2008 at 1:50 pm #

    Why don’t we start with balancing our education system in the US. I can’t get school loans anymore!

  4. Curtis
    August 3, 2008 at 12:52 pm #

    Though what Mortenson did was noble and good, it is not the full answer to the “extremism” of those who call the USA their enemies. That would be like saying that all the British needed in the 1770’s was to educate their colonies better and no revolution would occur. We have to recognize that what we see as their extremism is largely a reaction to what they see as our murderous and oppressive empire.

  5. Dave
    August 3, 2008 at 9:25 pm #

    Curtis- I agree that Mortenson’s efforts are not a cure all and there will often be no other choice but to fight, I think of the scene between Moroni and Zerahemnah recorded in Alma 44 as an example but I do think that if Motenson’s strategy were the main strategy and military intervention the exception then the final result of comparative security both in the immediate and long term would be leaps and bounds more secure than the current strategy of invasion and occupation of nations.

    Regarding the British-colonies reference- I think your comparison is way off. The colonial uprising happened because the dissenters were well-educated and the stood for principles of freedom, human rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The dissenters in this case, the extremist jihadists, are extremely uneducated, sadly indoctrinated with hate and extreme viewpoints, and their methods are destructive to the freedom and human rights of all. So, not a good comparison at all.

    I will say this, that if the US government did decide to channel its money to Mortenson and had any control of the curriculum of those schools then the virtue and effectiveness of the effort would completely crumble. Mortensen is able to maintain credibility in the communities he works because he has distanced himself from U.S. policy and the U.S. government, if a USAID logo were to ever appear on a Mortensen school his schools would be quickly targeted for bombing and the like. The solution?- the government should put the money back in the hands of citizens and the private citizenship of the United States should be the direct supporters of Mortensen’s efforts. There could even be creative earmarking of the money, take the budget from that Tomahawk missile and give it back to the citizenship of the U.S. as credit to be designated to a grouping of nonprofits working in the region, hold an open-source competition on Changemakers or point people towards another consumer report type effort to measure the effectiveness of nonprofits. The U.S. government can publicize it up the wazoo that this is the strategy they are pursuing for good PR internationally but not having direct influence over the organizations on the ground is the only way to allow them to operate with credibility.

  6. Curtis
    August 6, 2008 at 12:20 am #

    Dave,
    The comparison between the Jihadists and the founding fathers of the USA is not way off as you claim, if you look at it from a bit of a different angle. They are a group of oppressed people fighting against a very powerful empire. That is the main point. Ronald Reagan saw it this way when he said that the Mujahideen of Afghanistan (which was bin Laden’s organization) were the moral equivalents of our founding fathers!

    You are speaking from your own bias when you claim the Jihadists, “extremely uneducated, sadly indoctrinated with hate and extreme viewpoints, and their methods are destructive to the freedom and human rights of all.”

    This is a description of only a small portion of those who fight against the USA in Iraq and Afghanistan. Did you know that a poll was taken sometime last year which found that some 60% of Iraqis support attacks against US troops? Does your description above pertain to those people? Are they uneducated? or have they just not received the brainwashing the powers that be would like them to receive (which some would conveniently call an education)?

    No, the US IS providing an education in Iraq and Afghanistan right now. The education they are providing shows that might makes right. This education shows that you can bomb wedding parties and kill 47 women and children and it’s allright as long as you mention that it was unfortunate and that bad guys often hide in wedding parties. This education shows that you can kill anyone who looks at you funny. It shows that torture and rape of prisoners is all right. It shows that it is ok to consider Iraqis and Aghanistanis as less than human. This is the education that is being fed to the “jihadists” by the USA. Their arguement against the USA is not going to be helped by merely educating them. They are hating their education enough to care little for their own lives and they fight against the empire.

    A good education is a noble thing. However, education has been a tool of those in power to achieve their purposes for a long time now. No education in Iraq or Afghanistan right now will counter the education the USA is currently providing.

  7. Dave
    August 7, 2008 at 7:56 pm #

    Curtus– I think we’re on the same side just correcting the strength of each other’s arguments. My ‘uneducated, indoctrinated with hate’ was meant to only apply to those extremists as you suggested. The 60% stat of Iraqis supporting attacks on U.S. forces is completely understandable in terms of wanting the occupying empire out of one’s homeland. I would want the same thing.

    I completely agree that the U.S. policy of invasion and occupation is providing an education whether they think of it that way or not and that education is only breeding more hostility and extremism. And like I make the point in my last post, that if the US from a government level tried to be directly involved in a ‘positive’ education then it would be completely rejected. The education element is a job for the citizen sector.

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