Messing with the Middle East

Blood and Oil— The Middle East in World War I
Writ. & dir. Marty Callaghan (unrated)

To judge by the gory landmarks usually associated with it — the Marne, the Somme, Verdun — World War I was about as global as the so-called World Series. However, some of the fiercest combat, in Asia Minor, was as far from minor as it was from London and Paris. And an exclusively Eurocentric view of World War I impedes our understanding of current crises.

Blood and Oil begins in spring 2003 with the invasion of Iraq by the United States, an operation that the narrator describes as “only the latest in a long series of wars, revolts, and foreign occupations.” To understand that series, the film, a feature-length documentary being released on DVD, flashes back to October 29, 1914, when the Ottoman Empire, led by the pro-German dictator Enver Pasha, launches surprise attacks against Yalta, Sebastopol, and other Russian cities. Within the first day, about one-third of the ill-prepared attackers are eliminated. During the next nine years, ferocious battles are fought in Turkey and much of the Middle East, and millions of lives are lost to combat, cold, heat, starvation, and disease. Focusing on the 1914-23 period, filmmaker Marty Callaghan offers a detailed military history of a region often thought to be but incidental to great power rivalries.

Though the events are rich in incident and character, Blood and Oil reduces it all to one damn battle after another. Winston Churchill, Edmund Allenby, Georges Clemenceau, Faisal I, and Mustafa Kemal are mentioned repeatedly, but they and other leading personalities remain just names, overwhelmed by a torrent of statements about objectives, tactics, and casualties. While the screen is filled with black-and-white stills and grainy footage from the era, a speciously omniscient narrator recounts a sequence of military campaigns that are as difficult for a viewer to digest as they were for participants to survive. The camera occasionally cuts to one of three talking heads, historians David Fromkin, Edward J. Erickson, and David Woodward, for commentary, but so much information is conveyed so rapidly that a viewer feels machine-gunned into recognition that the eastern Mediterranean became an abattoir.       

Suggesting that oil fueled all of the region’s woes, the narrator notes that the British navy switched from coal to oil the day after Parliament declared war on the Ottoman Empire. Yet, though blood is always flowing in Blood and Oil, Callaghan, preoccupied with details of numerous military campaigns, neglects oil for long stretches. Oil does not explain the Balfour Declaration, London’s decision to support a Jewish homeland in Palestine, but neither does this film, which treats the development as a sudden, inexplicable whim. Nor does oil have much to do with the deaths of more than 600,000 Armenians, a genocide that Callaghan, while documenting armed encounters involving Armenians, Turks, Greeks, Russians, Germans, French, British, Australians, Kurds, and Arabs, ignores.

Months after sending more than 100,000 American troops into Iraq, George W. Bush reportedly did not know the difference between Shia and Sunni. Those who do not study the region’s bloody past are condemned to perpetuate the long series of wars, revolts, and foreign occupations. “The defeat of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 turned out to be a hollow victory for the West,” says the narrator of Blood and Oil. He is right, but to explain why, he needs to start before 1914 and provide cultural and social contexts, not merely a blow-by-blow account of organized slaughter.


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