Don Williams
Photo by Justin Williams

Don Williams is a prize-winning columnist, blogger, fiction writer, sometime TV commentator, and is the founder and editor emeritus of New Millennium Writings, an annual anthology of stories, essays and poems. His awards include a National Endowment for the Humanities Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan, a Golden Presscard Award from Sigma Delta Chi Society of Professional Journalists, a best Commentary Award from SDC, Best Feature Writing from the Associated Press Tennessee Managing Editors, the Malcolm Law Journalism Prize from the Associated Press, Best Non-Deadline Reporting from the United Press International, Best Novel Excerpt from the Knoxville Writers Guild, a Peacemaker Award from the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, five Writer of the Month Awards from the Scripps Howard Newspaper chain, and many others. In 2011 he was inducted into the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame. His 2005 book of journalism, Heroes, Sheroes and Zeroes is under revision for a second printing, and he is at work on a novel and a book of journalism. His columns appear at and have been featured at many other well-known websites. To run his column, gratis, at your website, post this link to a dedicated spot: Need a speaker, panelist, tv commentator or teacher for your group or to lead a writing workshop, in your town? Email

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Congratulations on your new camel
(Copyright by Don Williams, All rights reserved   04/11/2003)


You're the proud new owner of a camel, to use a figure of speech.

There's an old saying that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. And if anything was ever designed by a committee, it's Iraq. The English and French, meeting in secrecy during World War I, basically designed the modern Middle East (look up "Sykes-Picot Agreement" for more) and the League of Nations rubber-stamped the deal following World War I.

The old Ottoman Empire, based in Turkey, had ruled most of the Middle East and parts of Europe for much of four centuries, but when it finally fell apart during WWI, the English and French filled the power vacuum. Drunk on prospects of victory, or stronger stuff, they drew bold lines on maps to divvy up the spoils of war--especially oilfields, railroads, harbors, trade routes.

Iraq's parts still don't fit together just right, and that's made it downright ungovernable for much of its ornery life as a modern state. That's because the designers drew lines across ethnic, religious, political and geographic entities. They lopped off Kuwait, which had been a part of historic Iraq for centuries under the Ottoman Turks. They drew other lines through ancient homelands, so that Kurds in the northern mountains of Iraq, for instance, are forever cut off from Kurds in the adjoining mountains of Turkey, Syria and Iran.

And they drew lines through major religious sects, so that Shiites outnumber the Sunnis--Saddam's religious base--about two to one in Iraq. Many Iraqi Shiites have more in common with Iranian Shiites than their erstwhile Sunni rulers in Iraq.

It's no wonder that Iraq--this proud purveyor of culture and civilization stretching way back--all the way to Eden, some say--has lurched along like a drunken camel for much of the past century.

It's been a protectorate of both the Ottomans and the English. It's had a variety of kings, princes, emirs, governors, prime ministers, presidents and dictators, and flirted with a parliamentary system more than once. During WWII, it was aligned first with the Axis powers, then the Allies. It's been officially Islamic, secular, socialist and openly capitalist in fits and starts.

CIA, KGB as well as British and German spies have all subverted its governments from time to time. It's been invaded by the English (twice), Turks, Iranians, Americans (twice) and Israelis, who bombed an Iraqi reactor in 1981.

Coup after coup has produced a staggering assortment of leaders who jerked Iraq first in one direction, then another. During a series of violent coups beginning in 1936, it had seven rulers in five years! Before Saddam Hussein put a hammerlock on the country in 1979, Iraq had a new ruler about every two years on average.

Now George W. Bush is in the saddle. As commander-in-chief of the dominant military force, he calls the shots, which means we rule Iraq, at least for the time being.

For better or worse--and jubilant TV pictures suggest it's for the better--that distinction was bought by American blood and dollars, though just how much we spent won't be known for years. It'll probably tally up to hundreds of billions of dollars.

In blood, it's cost about 100 dead American soldiers so far and a few dozen missing in action and wounded. If you count Iraqi blood as part of the cost, then toss in somewhere between 3,000 and 10,000 more dead soldiers and more than 1,000 civilians.

If you count the first Gulf War as part of the cost, add as many as 30,000 more dead bodies, many thousands more if we assume some responsibility for the thousands killed directly or indirectly due to effects of UN sanctions.

If you count American victims of Osama bin Laden, who's been quoted as saying he targeted the Twin Towers because we based soldiers in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War, then add 3,000 more Americans. If the war spreads to Syria, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Israel, Egypt, Pakistan and/or Saudi Arabia, we could be talking millions, eventually.

However you figure it, we've bought ourselves a pretty expensive rogue camel. Of course, you also pay a price if you don't buy the camel. At least if you buy the tortured beast you can keep it from running wild and doing damage--for a while.

If need be, you can ride it all the way to Damascus or Tehran.

Put a cowboy in the saddle and it just might behave as a horse.

So there it is, thrashing about in our living rooms like something won in a high stakes poker game after a few too many. It looks happy for now.

Time will tell if it was a good buy.