Review of three cups of tea: one man's mission to promote peace... one school at a time

  • Published
  • By Maj. Alan Copeland
  • 36th Comptroller Squadron
The book review "Three Cups ofTea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time" is on theChief of Staff of the Air Force's reading list and was done as part of the
36th Wing's Commander's Commentary program

Greg Mortensen and David Oliver Relin's Three Cups Of Tea is an inspirational, and supposedly biographical, rendition of how Mortensen's altruistic gesture, building a school in repayment for a village's kindness, eventually morphed into a focused passion of providing schools and educational opportunities in remote regions neglected by the government, especially for girls. Although an astonishing story of how individual tenacity and selfless drive can positively impact the world as well as an interesting cultural lesson on South West Asia, this perennial New York Times Best Seller reads more like a novel than an unbiased depiction of true events.

Mortenson first arrived in Pakistan in 1993 to climb K2, the world's second-tallest mountain. The goal was to master the mountain, as well as place a memorial necklace atop the peak to honor his deceased sister. After failing to summit, he was separated from his fellow climbers and arrived, alone and poorly provisioned as an "Angrezi", a strange white man, at the village Korphe. He was immediately taken "unconditionally" into the village and nursed back to health. To repay the kindness, Mortenson eventually delivered on his promised to build the impoverished village its first school. The journey to repaying that promise was filled with personal sacrifice, risk, cultural learning, and emotional highs and lows. In the process, Mortensen was helped and hindered by a colorful cast of contributors including local staff endeared to him, village elders, philanthropists, con artists, mujahadeen, and Taliban. The drive to building a single school eventually snowballed into Mortensen's passion to build as many schools as possible, mostly in areas without government support. Meanwhile, events like 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan changed world focus towards radical Islam. In some ways, these events highlighted the need for an alternative to radical Islam teaching more readily available in Wahhabi madrassas and catapulted Mortensen's then floundering Central Asia Institute (CAI) into solvency generating mass contributions. Following 9/11, Mortenson and Relin posited that building schools and educational opportunity provided a better enduring recipe for fighting Islamic extremism than bombs or bullets, which as depicted in the book gained widespread support, even from military personnel.

Next, when gleaning the authors' purpose, I walked away from the book with mixed feelings. To caveat, half way through reading the book in blissful ignorance, I learned that although Mortensen stands by the story as predominately accurate, many of the events depicted have been contested by individuals featured in the book as either exaggerations or outright falsehoods. This by no means takes away from Mortenson's outstanding accomplishments achieved from apparently humble beginnings and later ballooning through his leadership of the CAI, but it does color a picture that publishing this work may have been less about a true historical accounting to raise awareness of a worthy cause and more towards its use as an advertising platform geared towards fundraising. For additional reading on the controversy, see and Mortensen's response at, as well as a plethora of other online sources.

In terms of writing style, the book was slow reading initially, but became easier as after the first several chapters. At times it seemed like the detailed descriptions were excessive and made reading cumbersome. In contrast, especially during intense scenes of hardship such as his alleged kidnapping by Taliban, I appreciated the clear pictures they painted. But, through it all I found myself pondering, before and after finding out that events may not be historically accurate, if I was reading an adventure novel with the protagonist hero being aggrandized and put loftily on a pedestal. This harsh assessment may have been curbed and the reading less novel-like if the authors chose to write the book from a first person perspective instead of in the third person.

Overall, from a personal perspective the book was a good read, but not outstanding, mainly because the writing style, not the content. I suspect, from the authors' standpoint, it probably overwhelmingly met their goals of raising awareness and funds for a highly worthy cause, especially prior to the scandal raised about the book's accuracy. Despite the scandal, the book is a great story about how individual commitment, resolve and personal risk can sometimes generate immeasurable benefits for less-than fortunate people in the world. Consequently, Mortenson's efforts towards making a difference and this book should still be commended as laudable.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.