Unlocking The First World Oil War

Winegard_FirstWorldOilWarDr. Timothy C. Winegard discusses his interest in warfare, meeting his wife, and his new book The First World Oil War.

How did you become involved in your area of research?

I have been enthralled with warfare from a very young age. I can remember being in Grade One or Two and getting so excited for the Book Mobile to make its weekly visit to my school, because each week the librarians brought new war books specifically for me. To be honest, I suspect that many of them never actually got read, but I was fascinated by the photographs, knowing that my Grandfathers had served for Canada in these wars.

My Great-Great-Grandfather Charles served in the Boer War and the First World War. My Great-Grandfather William served in both World Wars and his son, my Grandpa William, in the Second World War. They all served as “civilian soldiers.” I also have family members who served in Korea, Vietnam and the First Gulf War. Accordingly, I served nine years as an officer in the Canadian Forces, including a two-year attachment to the British Army. My name, Timothy Charles William Winegard, is a testament to their impact upon my family, and certainly myself.

However, my primary passion has always been the First World War.  This is my fourth book, and the third looking at particular angles of the Great War.

What inspired you to write this book?

The origins of this book lie in a series of questions.  Having just published two books on global and Canadian indigenous peoples and the First World War respectively, my wife asked me, “What is your next book going to be on?”  Having been immersed in indigenous warfare and politics for the past six or seven years, I wanted to return to my roots as a pure military historian.  I had long ago written a journal article on the topic of this book.  In fact, that article on Dunsterforce from 2005, was the first piece of writing that I had ever published.

I simply answered my wife’s question with: “Oil and War.”  Bewildered, she ingenuously asked: “Isn’t that a given?”  She unknowingly answered her own question, and the premise of this book.  And, yes, it is now a given.  But how, why, and when, did this marriage between oil and war happen?—during the First World War and its fraudulent peace.  And, how, why, and when, did the United States and the United Kingdom come to dominate global oil?—during the First World War and its fraudulent peace.   This book is, in essence, the answer to her question, and many more.

How did you become interested in the subject?

Simply put, oil dominates all aspects of modern society and has done so for the past century.  Oil was and is the catalyst for global conflict and aggression over this time period.  It really just seemed like a logical fit to trace the influence of oil on war and geo-politics from its starting point of the First World War to contemporary occurrences in the Middle East, Russia, the Ukraine, the Sudans, Nigeria, and of course this list could go on.  I also figured that with the Great War centennials approaching, now was the right time to finally sit down and write this book.

How long did it take you to write your latest book?

Adding in the time I spent researching, I would say roughly four to five years.  However, I wrote the actual manuscript/book over a two-year period.  The majority of this writing, however, was done over two summers, during my break from teaching, and coaching the university varsity hockey team.  During the actual school year, my time was limited, so while I did revisions and proof-reading, the actual writing occurred over two summer breaks.

What do you wish other people knew about your area of research?

Certainly that people forget just how much impact the First World War has had on our lives.  Most events that have transpired in the last 100 years, including current events, have their roots in the Great War: the spread of Communism, the creation of Israel, the troubles in the Middle East, the partitioning of borders across the globe based on oil concessions and arbitrary demarcations, the issues in the Balkans.  The list is endless.  The goal of this book is to tie together the circumstances of the Great War to contemporary events using oil as the medium.

What’s the most surprising thing you discovered during the course of your research?

Just how far the First World War (and oil) have taken us down the rabbit hole.  Some of the links and associations shocked me.  The rise of al-Qaeda, the politics of Afghanistan (and the entire greater Middle East for that matter), the corruption, and clandestine activities that took and take place to secure global oil rights.  It really is both mindboggling and fascinating.

Do you have to travel much concerning the research/writing of your book?

Compared to other books I have written; the research trips were not quite as hectic. I went to various archives and libraries in Canada, the United States, Britain, and Australia.  Although some of these trips overlapped with research for another book, so in this sense, I killed two birds with one stone.

However, my research trips for this book produced my own adventures.  I was consumed by two tornadoes in the US, engulfed in a hotel fire in London, was subject to numerous cancelled flights, slept on countless acerbic airport floors and vinyl seats, and was forced to make an emergency landing at NORAD in Colorado Springs as the engine and baggage compartment of my plane were immersed in flames.  I suppose this is all a part of the travel and research process though!  I always joke that the actual writing part of the book process is the easiest, and I am sure many authors would agree.

The best part of my research for this book, however, is that I met my wife Becky in Washington D.C. while I was at the US National Archives. I bought a ticket for a Washington Capitals game and she was sitting beside me.  She was in D.C. for a work conference, having flown in from Grand Junction, Colorado.  She is the reason I left Canada, and now live in Grand Junction, and teach and coach at Colorado Mesa University.

What was the hardest part of writing your book?

Aside from finding the time, I would say knowing what to include and what to exclude.  By that I mean trying to make the links from the Great War to more recent events clear to the reader, by not getting too focused on the details, but rather present the bigger picture of how it all fits together in one giant web of geo-politics and war.

What are your current/future projects?

Right now I am researching for a book on the political aspects surrounding the 1972 Summit Series of hockey between the Soviet Union and Canada. As Gord Downie of The Tragically Hip sings, “If there’s a goal that everyone remembers it was back in old ’72.”

I am not really looking at the actual hockey that was played, nor Paul Henderson’s famous winning goal.  I am looking at the Cold War politics of the series, and the role played by both governments (and the United States) and their various security branches. The book will also look at the political aspects of the series on a national level in Canada, as it was made to coincide with the 1972 Federal Election.  Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau made sure of this, as he thought the series (and what was thought at the time to be Canada’s certain victory), would unite the country, and Canadians would forget about the FLQ Crisis, French-English divisions, and spiraling unemployment and inflation.  He used the series politically to try to gain voting favour in the upcoming election.  While he was reelected in 72, it was with a minority government.  These are just a few of the political aspects which will be detailed in the book.  There was a lot of political maneuvering happening amongst Canada, the Soviet Union, the United States and even NATO, both at the international level and also on the domestic fronts.  As Phil Esposito remarked, “This is war.”  Indeed, it was a cold war both on and off the ice.

What do you like to read for pleasure?  What are you currently reading?

To be honest, I don’t get a lot of time to read for pleasure, although all of the reading I do for my research is pleasurable nonetheless! I am currently reading secondary source literature for my next book.  I also read the weekly magazine Economist dutifully.  Lately, my son and I have been reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid series for his bedtime story.  He is six, but we both love it—the vignettes mirror real life, and are quite hilarious.  We also like the Skippy John Jones kid’s series.

What is your favourite book?

This is a tough question!  I love J.R. Miller’s book, Skyscrapers Hide the Heavens: A History of Indian-White Relations in Canada.  It is brilliant, and I often say that I wish I would have written it.  Thomas More’s Utopia, and Machiavelli’s, The Prince are also two of my favourites.  And while I don’t read a ton of fiction, I do love Joseph Boyden’s, Three Day Road, and The Chrysalids by John Wyndham.  Some of my other favourite authors are: Hermann Hesse, Franz Kafka, William S. Burroughs, and Margaret Atwood.

If you weren’t working in academia, what would you be doing instead?

I am not sure, really, as this is what I always wanted to do, and worked towards. Well, I always wanted to play in the NHL, like every other Canadian kid!

I have always said that I wanted to enter politics later in my life, like my grandpa did.  I always said I wanted to be a Member of Parliament, and perhaps the Minister of Defence or the Minster of Indian Affairs.  Obviously, my move to the United States has hindered that aspiration for the time being.  And since America won’t grant me dual citizenship, I cannot run for office here in America, as I will always remain a citizen of Canada.  When our kids are adults, we may move back to Canada, and perhaps I can pursue this further.  Who knows though: Life happens while you plan for it!

I loved my time in the Army, but didn’t want to make it a career.  Before I met my wife, I was teaching at Western University in the Indigenous Studies Department, and had been accepted to study aboriginal law at the Law School.  I might have made aboriginal law a career, had I not met Becky when I did.  But, I love my job, both teaching at a university and writing.  This is what I was programed for.