Sunday , September 27 2020
A documentary focus on the Middle East during World War I provides important perspective on the region's problems today.

DVD Review: Blood and Oil – The Middle East in World War I

Why, some may ask, would a documentary film on the military campaigns in the Middle East during World War I open with scenes from the American invasion of Iraq in 2003? As the documentary, Blood and Oil — The Middle East in Word War I demonstrates, it is something called historical perspective. A similar invasion "has happened before" and is part of what contributed to the Middle East we know today.

Recently, many tend to compare the Iraq War to Vietnam. From a historical standpoint, that is not the relevant conflict. Instead, understanding why the Middle East is so fraught with conflict and why the current Iraq War presents such seemingly insoluble issues requires looking to World War I. It and the geopolitics of European countries, particularly Great Britain and France, at the end of the Great War helped shape today's Middle East and the ethnic and religious conflicts that tend to boil over into violence.

As the title promises, most of Blood and Oil tells the history of World War I operations in the Middle East. Filmmaker (and narrator) Marty Callaghan details the battles and campaigns from the Ottoman Empire's decision to enter the war in late 1914 through the cessation of hostilities in 1918 and the formation of the Turkish Republic and various Arab "states" in the years following the war. Throughout, Callaghan details the various military and political blunders committed by virtually all sides. For example, the Ottoman entry into the war would bring about the end of that empire. Likewise, Callaghan looks at the mistakes that doomed Allied efforts on the Gallipoli peninsula and the failed British drive to Baghdad from Basra (a campaign that was, in fact, repeated with different results this century).

But military mistakes per se are not the focus of the documentary, which is part of a Minutes of History documentary series. It also explores not only basic details of various campaigns and battles, but the often political ramifications of military decisions and vice versa. Callaghan does this through photographs, film, and artwork from the time period, as well as contemporary accounts from virtually all sides. In addition, he calls on the expertise of three authors who have written about World War I in the Middle East and its ultimate ramifications: David Fromkin (A Peace to End All Peace), David R. Woodward (Hell in the Holy Land), and Edward J. Erickson (Ordered To Die).

Fromkin's highly acclaimed work explored one of the main themes of Callaghan's documentary — the borders and nations created following the war are partially responsible for the continuing conflict today. Near the end of the war, France and Great Britain reached a secret agreement on how to carve up the Middle East. Great Britain had converted its navy from coal to oil in 1911 and, as a result, was perhaps far more aware of the importance of the Middle Eastern oil fields than many, if not most, of the other great powers of the time. That agreement left Great Britain with protectorates in Palestine, Jordan, and Iraq and gave France Syria and Lebanon. After that division was formalized by treaty, British diplomats also laid the groundwork for the later formation of a Jewish state in Palestine.

Yet as Fromkin points out in the documentary, the new map of the Middle East was drawn to advance and protect Western political and economic interests, not to recognize the ethnic and religious diversity of the region. The artifical construct ignored the history and traditions of the region. That failing was further compounded by the installation of pro-Western leaders. As a result, the new boundaries and European influence essentially ensured there would be sufficient fuel for civil strife and regional wars for decades to come. Callaghan's message is that any hope for the future of Iraq or the Middle East as a whole requires abandoning the map created and imposed by Great Britain and France after World War I.

In addition to the documentary, the DVD provides unedited excerpts from the interviews with Fromkin and the other authors, helping provide further insight into the background and history of decisions and events that directly affect the world yet today. Fromkin also provides a small, although perhaps not wholly encouraging, bit of consolation. Historians can all speculate as to what might have happened had some other arrangement been reached on the Middle East during and following the war. Yet, Fromkin asks in the documentary, isn't it possible it could have produced worse results?

Regardless, it is fruitless to attempt to grasp Middle Eastern issues without some perspective on how that region as it exists today came into existence. Blood and Oil is not as detailed on the ethnic and religious issues as it is on the Great War in the region. Still, it provides viewers with a background essential to understanding the historical underpinnings of current and recent events in Iraq and throughout the Middle East and assess for themselves the role World War I continues to play on today's global stage.

About Tim Gebhart

After 30 years of practicing law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs. Tim Gebhart is now perfecting the art of doing little more than reading, writing and sleeping.

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