Beirut 2020: A tale of two tragedies 75 years apart
On the day we remember Hiroshima we mourn the horrific loss of life in Lebanon
Just one day after the horrific explosion in Beirut that brought about the deaths of more than 135 people, with thousands injured and at least 300,000 people left homeless, the world remembers the tragic events of 75 years ago when the United States unleashed an atomic bomb for the first time on Hiroshima, Japan.
On the morning of 6 August 1945, at about 8.15am Japanese time, the US ushered in the era of weapons of mass destruction when it flattened the city, killing 70,000 people instantly, with the death toll rising to more than 140,000 by December 1945.
The radius of total destruction resulting from the bomb, code-named "Little Boy", dropped from a Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber called “Enola Gay” was reportedly 1.6 kilometres, bringing devastation unlike anything witnessed by mankind before.
But that was not the end to the horror it caused, the radiation released from the explosion left a legacy of sickness and cancer that tormented the city in the years that followed, eventually taking the death toll above 200,000.
Unleashed in an attempt to bring an end to World War II, the operation was sanctioned by US President Harry Truman with four cities chosen as possible targets: Hiroshima, Kokura, Nagasaki and Niigata.
The Target Committee wanted the bomb to be "sufficiently spectacular for the importance of the weapon to be internationally recognised when publicity on it was released”.
Piloted by Colonel Paul Tibbets, and named after his mother, the Enola Gay dropped an untested uranium-235 atomic bomb on the city that certainly achieved that goal.
Staff Sergeant George Caron, the tail gunner of the 12-man crew, said: "The mushroom cloud itself was a spectacular sight, a bubbling mass of purple-gray smoke and you could see it had a red core in it and everything was burning inside… it looked like lava or molasses covering a whole city".
The cloud is estimated to have reached a height of 40,000 feet and two-thirds of Hiroshima was destroyed. Within three miles of the explosion, 60,000 of the 90,000 buildings were demolished. Clay roof tiles had melted together. Shadows had imprinted on buildings and other hard surfaces. Metal and stone had melted.
But while the people of Japan tried to comprehend the devastation in Hiroshima, the United States was preparing a second bombing mission. It was not delayed in order to give Japan time to surrender but was waiting only for a sufficient amount of plutonium-239 for the atomic bomb.
On 9 August, just three days after Hiroshima, another B-29, Bock's Car, left Tinian, an island in the Marianas group, 1,500 miles south of Japan, at 3.49am.
The first choice target had been Kokura but haze above the bombing zone meant Bock's Car continued on to its next target and at 11.02am, the second bomb, code-named "Fat Man", was dropped on Nagasaki, exploding 1,650 feet above the city.
It destroyed about 40 per cent of Nagasaki but, although Fat Man was considered much stronger than Little Boy, the city’s terrain prevented the bomb from doing as much damage as at Hiroshima.
The destruction, however, was still great. With a population of 270,000, about 40,000 people died immediately and another 30,000 by the end of the year.
On 15 August Emperor Hirohito announced Japan's surrender and on 2 September it was formally signed, bringing the hostilities of World War II to a close.
But the bombings were as questionable back then as they are today. Six out of seven five-star US generals and admirals at the time felt there was no need to drop the bomb because Japanese surrender was imminent.
The power of the bomb ushered in a sea change in geopolitics that still reverberates to this day, with the acquisition of this technology sought by a number of nations.
Fortunately it has remained the domain of the few, with only nine nations believed to possess the technology: the US, Russia, United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel.
But in the 75 years since Hiroshima felt the devastating force of nuclear weapons, one has to imagine the technology has become far superior to that used in 1945, presenting a more technically advanced device capable of much greater destruction but also controlled targeting.
Warheads no longer have to be dropped from planes and, with far smaller devices, the destructive forces can be controlled much better.
So that brings us to what happened in the Middle East yesterday. Shortly after atomic bombs rained down on Japan, the states of Israel and Lebanon went to war in 1948.
The territories that would become these states were once part of the Ottoman Empire, which lasted from 1299 until its defeat in World War I and subsequent dissolution in 1922.
As a result of the Sinai and Palestine Campaign in 1917, the British occupied Palestine and parts of what would become Syria. French troops took Damascus in 1918. The League of Nations officially gave the French the mandate of Syria and the British the mandate of Palestine after the 1920 San Remo conference.
The largely Christian enclave of the French mandate became the French-controlled Lebanese Republic in 1926, with Lebanon becoming independent in 1943 as France was under German occupation, though French troops did not completely withdraw until 1946.
The rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, culminating in the Holocaust during World War II, had meant an increase of Jewish immigrants to a minority Jewish, majority Arab, mandate in Palestine.
But, during the 1936-39 Arab revolt and thereafter, the British increasingly came to rely on Jewish police forces to help maintain order in Palestine.
In November 1947 the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state but clashes broke out almost immediately as British troops prepared to withdraw.
On the eve of the British forces’ 15 May 1948 withdrawal, Israel declared independence. The next day, Arab forces from Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon occupied the areas in southern and eastern Palestine, not apportioned to the Jews by the UN partition of Palestine, and then captured east Jerusalem, including the small Jewish quarter of the Old City.
Between February and July 1949, as a result of separate armistice agreements between Israel and each of the Arab states, a temporary frontier was fixed between Israel and its neighbours. In Israel, the war is remembered as its War of Independence. In the Arab world, it came to be known as the Nakbah (Catastrophe) because of the large number of refugees and displaced persons resulting from it.
Since that time the Middle East has been a region of constant conflict with events such as the Suez Crisis, the 1967 Six-Day War, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the 1982 Lebanon War and the second Lebanon War in 2006 causing great hostility between the Jewish and Arab communities and a tremendous loss of life.
In July 2006 Hezbollah, a Shia Islamist political party and militant group based in Lebanon, launched an operation against Israel in an attempt to pressure the country into releasing Lebanese prisoners, killing a number of Israeli soldiers in the process and capturing two.
Israel launched an offensive into southern Lebanon to recover the captured soldiers. The war lasted 34 days but left more than one thousand Lebanese dead and about one million others displaced. Several Arab leaders criticised Hezbollah for inciting the conflict. Nevertheless Hezbollah’s ability to fight the Israel defence forces to a standstill won praise throughout much of the Arab world.
Since 2006 hostilities between the nations have never ceased and sporadic incidents between the states occur with great regularity.
On 25 August last year Lebanese and Hezbollah officials reported two Israeli drones crashed into the Dahieh district of the Lebanese capital Beirut. Hezbollah denied exploding or targeting them.
The following day, Arab media claimed Israeli aircraft had carried out an airstrike on a base belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a Syria-based Palestinian militant group. The base is located in the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon, near the border with Syria.
And on 31 October an Israeli drone was targeted by an anti-aircraft missile fired by Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, officials in both countries said. According to Hezbollah the drone was shot down, a claim denied by Israel.
And, as recently as 26 July this year, an Israeli drone crashed in Lebanon amid fears of an escalation with Hezbollah.
So, of all the cities in the world where a devastating explosion could have taken place, it seems a coincidence of massive proportions for it to have struck Beirut, in an area of the city believed by many to have housed huge stocks of Hezbollah armaments.
The official line is that the explosion occurred in a warehouse containing vast quantities of impounded ammonium nitrate, which caused the blast, but ask anyone who witnessed the tragedy in person, or viewed it online, what it looked like to them.
A huge plume of smoke rising from the port area of the city, turning into a mushroom cloud following a second explosion with red at its core. Sound anything like what Staff Sergeant George Caron observed at Hiroshima?
There were clearly at least two different types of explosions in Beirut… could the second have been a small targeted nuclear device to send a warning to Hezbollah and totally destroy its stock of explosives, while wiping out the city’s downtown business district, a nearby waterfront full of restaurants and nightclubs, and a number of crowded residential neighborhoods in the city’s eastern and predominantly Christian half?
The blasts emanated from Beirut’s port but were felt as far away as Cyprus, more than 180 miles to the west. I’ll say no more, except that I’m not buying the official line!