Heroes -- real, imagined, or something in between -- serve the same purpose today that they did for the Greeks who gave us the term some three millennia ago. Heroes can inspire, but they mostly tell us who we think we are, thereby revealing the gap between our idealized and true selves.
Many hundreds of articles have now been written about Greg Mortenson's very public fall from grace, starting with the April 17th CBS's "60 Minutes" expose of the much lauded humanitarian and co-author of the 2006 New York Times bestseller “Three Cups of Tea.” The CBS show questioned the veracity of his stories, the misuse of the millions of dollars he raised to build girls' schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and even the existence of many of the schools he claimed to have built. Those hundreds of articles, and the hundreds more to follow – especially Jon Krakauer's “Three Cups of Deceit” – will eventually expose the truth. For now, it is useful to consider what Mortenson tells us about ourselves, and about our heroes.
An April 10th Los Angeles Times story, "Anatomy of an Afghan War Tragedy," describes how on February 21, 2010, in Afghanistan, a US Predator drone aircraft was keeping a convoy of Afghan civilians under surveillance. From 7,000 miles away in Nevada, the camera operator of the two-man drone crew said "Oh, sweet target." Then, about 2 1/2 hours later, US helicopters unleashed Hellfire missiles -- at $68,000 a piece -- on the convoy, killing from 15 (official US count) to 23 (Afghan count) of the Afghan civilians. The official US military transcript, quoting the Predator drone camera operator, reveals that part of the decision to attack the convoy was based on the questionable assumption that there were no children in the Afghan convoy, despite evidence to the contrary: "I really doubt that children call. Man, I really … hate that... Well, maybe a teenager. But I haven't seen anything that looked that short." There were children in the convoy killed in the attack.
There are far too many such incidents over the last nine and a half years of US and ISAF (International Security and Assistance Force, led by NATO) involvement in Afghanistan. The majority of these incidents remain unknown to the Western media or poorly documented. A rough count of known and investigated incidents for 2010 indicates at least eight incidents, causing at least 110 civilian deaths. For 2011 there are already nine incidents having resulted in 97 civilian deaths.
It was common knowledge for years that Greg Mortenson consulted with the US military and lectured at US war colleges. Mortensen was flown around Afghanistan on US Army helicopters, sometimes with General Petraeus. How does an Afghan know if a US military helicopter is there to dispense a book or a bomb? Why did progressives and anti-war folks allow themselves to be entranced by the insane notion that assassination and aid could go hand in hand? Why did so few, including Mortenson himself, question this commingling of aid and armed force (the most fundamental no-no for every respected humanitarian NGO)?
Timothy Burke, Professor of History at Swarthmore College, has written an insightful piece addressing a different aspect of Mortenson's myth. Burke says “The thing we all really need is a sharper understanding of the development industry and a wiser appreciation of how our own desires for sweeping messianic transformations are as much of a target market as any other consumer demand. I don’t know that we can blame people like Mortenson for giving us what many of us want... when you see a lone crusader telling you that he’s dedicated his life to comprehensively fixing some faraway place, don’t believe it. No knock on that guy: he may well be nice, he may well be sincere, he may well have suffered for his cause, but it is never going to pan out. Put your faith in the small, the focused, the modest.”
Greg Mortenson was a American hero who encouraged us to believe in the virtue of what we are doing to a people very far away and very different from us. After nearly a decade, stopping our unjust war in Afghanistan seemed impossible, so Mortenson showed us what seemed possible and all too easy: building schools and educating Muslim girls. If only we built enough schools, the Afghans might learn that we weren't such bad people, and they would stop fighting us. Mortenson allowed us to replace our moral duty – ending the war – with a convenient one. In the end, the unmasking of Mortensen’s fantasy may tell us more about ourselves than him. We hoped Mortenson could be the good face of American military power, forgetting that that face is at best a mask.
Should we give up on heroes? Probably. We throw the term around too loosely, and I'll admit to labeling some people “my heroes”, when it is probably more accurate to call them “people who inspire me”, or maybe “role models.” And that may be where the critical difference lies: heroes do improbable things, as Timothy Burke noted, whereas inspirational figures inspire us to act. The inspirational figure gets us to add value to our lives rather than subtracting value from our bank accounts.
There are many people who inspire me. Two very different people provided inspiration to me at critical times in my life: David Richie when I was a teenager and Abe Osheroff many years later.
David Richie (1908-2005), was a New Jersey Quaker and pacifist who dedicated his life to social justice work. While David's life appeared to be about social service -- working in the poorest areas of Philadelphia to rebuild homes -- his understanding of poverty and privilege demanded he do far more. David created the “Weekend Work Camp”, bringing privileged kids from the East Coast into the Philadelphia ghettos, partly to work, but mostly to learn. David chose to work among the poor, but he wanted people to learn what causes and institutionalizes poverty, what poverty destroys in the individual and in the society. David said “You can count the seeds in an apple, but you cannot count the apples in a seed.” David didn't want his tree watered or enshrined. For over seven decades his program planted thousands of seeds, and I take great pride in having my early roots nurtured by him and his long time co-conspirator Jim Hamilton.
Abe Osheroff (1915-2008), veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (the American volunteers who went to Spain in 1936 to fight against Fascism), was a different sort of inspirational figure for me. While I knew about him for decades, and his continuing work fighting injustice, it wasn't till late in 2002 that I would come to consider him a close friend. Abe's work was driven by the fundamental belief that Americans need to demand accountability for what is done in our name and that our primary responsibility is to end the harm we are responsible for. Abe said "I spend a great deal of time going around to various campuses and groups of young people doing what most people would call passing the torch. That's not the way I see it. I think most young people have inside them some of a bit of a torch of idealism, anti-authoritarianism. It's a torch that needs to be lit. That's my job lighting their torches, not handing them mine.”
Truly honest inspirational figures plant seeds and light torches. If we must have heroes let it be them.
The next time someone inspires you, question what it is they are inspiring you to do. Are they motivating you to act or to just give money? Are they getting you involved with fighting injustice or with supporting a particular person? Are they asking you to join a cause or a corporation (even if it is a non- profit one)? Are they clearly distinguishing social service from social activism? While social service and social activism are both valuable, and sometimes inseparable, one must not taint the other.
Greg Mortenson's project, while clearly doing some good, failed from the beginning to answer any of these questions in a satisfactory manner. Especially concerning this last question, Mortenson confounded social service with negative social activism -- the US war in Afghanistan.
Sacrifice and bravery are not sufficient to make one's actions right or necessary. There are struggles which Abe Osheroff would have argued are necessary – like ending our current wars -- and in those struggles we can become our own heroes. And before we support efforts to educate people we must first make sure we are not trying to eradicate them. David Richie taught me that lesson on the streets of Philadelphia.