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"The basic problem is that no one gets fired."
February 18, 2013 8:50 AM   Subscribe

Your Favorite Army General Actually Sucks. Tom Rick's new book The Generals focuses on professional shortcomings of high-ranking Army officers, and offers a new (old) solution: fire them. "But as far as I can tell, no general has been fired for incompetence in combat since Maj. Gen. James Baldwin was fired as commander of the Americal Division in 1971."

Lose A General, Win A War
In the longer term, the Army has to return to its tradition of getting rid of leaders who are failing. The Navy has shown more fortitude; in the first two months of this year alone it fired six commanders of ships and installations. On Tuesday, it fired the skipper of the frigate John L. Hall, two months after it collided with a pier at a Black Sea port in Georgia. The Navy stated simply, as it usually does in such cases, that the officer’s superior had lost confidence in him. That is all that is needed.
General Failure
Generalship in combat is extraordinarily difficult, and many seasoned officers fail at it. During World War II, senior American commanders typically were given a few months to succeed, or they’d be replaced. Sixteen out of the 155 officers who commanded Army divisions in combat were relieved for cause, along with at least five corps commanders.
Sex is the major reason military commanders are fired.

Firing Generals
But such is not the case in today’s military. Every general officer in Iraq and Afghanistan achieved his rank only after at least two decades, proving his competence and preparing for advancement at each level. Long before they were promoted to the rank of general, our combat commanders had proven themselves as company, battalion, and brigade commanders, a level at which failures are often met with relief. Even after those experiences, almost every general in line to command one of our ten combat divisions still had to serve as assistant division commander for a couple of years before being entrusted with the division. We are not, therefore, thrusting hundreds of generals or even a single general into command who has not spent his entire adult life preparing for the job.
TWS: Obama Dumps a Smart, Independently Minded General, focuses on Gen. James Mattis, USMC. The Obama Administration's Inexplicable Mishandling Of Marine General James Mattis
Pentagon insiders say that he rubbed civilian officials the wrong way -- not because he went all "mad dog," which is his public image, and the view at the White House, but rather because he pushed the civilians so hard on considering the second- and third-order consequences of military action against Iran. Some of those questions apparently were uncomfortable. Like, what do you do with Iran once the nuclear issue is resolved and it remains a foe? What do you do if Iran then develops conventional capabilities that could make it hazardous for U.S. Navy ships to operate in the Persian Gulf? He kept saying, "And then what?"
The Ouster Of Mattis: Some Follow-Up Details And A White-House Response
The Most Under-appreciated General in US History: Nathaniel Greene
posted by the man of twists and turns (35 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
A far cry from the Admiral Bing approach to encouragez all concerned.
posted by YouRebelScum at 8:54 AM on February 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


This link - The Obama Administration's Inexplicable Mishandling Of Marine General James Mattis - is behind a paywall I think?
posted by EndsOfInvention at 8:58 AM on February 18, 2013


And so are the other ForeignPolicy links. Actually it's not a paywall, but it wants me to sign up for a (free) account before I can read the article. No thanks.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 8:59 AM on February 18, 2013


The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been military failures and strategic disasters. No one has been held accountable and the mere fact of failure and disaster is unmentionable in polite conversation.

The problem runs a lot deeper than the army's human resources manual. Case in point:
And it’s something the Army has to reckon with as it deals with its future now that its decade of perpetual warfare is ending, and ending inconclusively.
The authorization for the "War on Terror" is over ten years old now and there is no sign of it being repealed and it's not inconclusive: the military failed both in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

(and that's not even getting into whether the war in Iraq was a crime...)
posted by ennui.bz at 9:15 AM on February 18, 2013


The authorization for the "War on Terror" is over ten years old now and there is no sign of it being repealed and it's not inconclusive: the military failed both in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

You would call these military failures rather than failures on the part of American politics? Make your case.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 9:25 AM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been military failures and strategic disasters.... it's not inconclusive: the military failed both in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

That's not how the military thinks of it. The military thinks of the War on Terror as a failure of the civilian leadership to resource and task the military effectively. Mostly, they think that the military actually went above and beyond the call of duty in doing something so far from its central purpose -- defeating the Iraqi and Taliban armed forces and pacifying the country until the civilians could make things work -- for so long, in the absence of that "until..." part. There isn't a general, colonel, captain, sergeant or private who wanted to be doing any of the civil-affairs/governmental/economic work, at least not in the environments of civil war and anarchy that they mostly did them in.
posted by Etrigan at 9:26 AM on February 18, 2013 [12 favorites]


Saying that the military failed at nation building is like complaining that your sword makes a lousy carpeneter's saw.
posted by Tomorrowful at 9:35 AM on February 18, 2013 [10 favorites]


Ever since Vietnam, we have had a collective psychosis around the idea of military failure. Presidents from both sides of the aisle have gone to great lengths to portray US military might as a perpetual guarantor of global prestige. But there is almost a pathological aversion toward critical discussion around our military campaigns for fear that you will be tagged as "unpatriotic" or that you don't "support the troops."

I find this maddening. "Supporting the troops" can and should include discussion of what went wrong and how to fix it so it doesn't happen again. By definition, that means openly discussing failure or goals not met.
posted by zooropa at 9:48 AM on February 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


There's also the Fresh Air interview with him, to add to the links.
posted by Panjandrum at 9:51 AM on February 18, 2013


Its been a war on terror in name only - its more or less a war for for continued and sustained access to scarce natural resources.

As for The Generals, Ricks likes Mattis - even mentions his firing of Col. Joe Dowdy in the invasion of Iraq. Mattis was ousted for being hawkish on Iran. The current administration, particularly the NSA, didn't appreciate that and asked him to leave early.

We really need is Fox Fallon back in CENTCOM now...
posted by vonstadler at 9:54 AM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


You would call these military failures rather than failures on the part of American politics? Make your case.

Iraq:
The military strategy in Iraq was based upon "tempo of operations," the idea being that if the US maintained and steadily increased the scale and frequency of operations that 'command and control' within the Iraqi forces would break down and the US would be able to mop up the command structure. As a result, the US constantly escalated the war in Iraq up until about 2006, and the various Iraqi resistance groups were able to maintain the tempo of fighting until 2007, when the US declared victory and began paying the same people we used to be fighting to stop fighting us. Now, unlike Americans, the Iraqis were perfectly aware that they had shown the US the door, that US was not staying in Iraq, that the Shia government which we installed and which is tacitly allied with Iran (our biggest regional enemy... how's that for success) was keeping the US there solely to keep on fighting Sunni insurgents. Why did the Sunni insurgents stop fighting us and start getting paid by us? Because they were gearing up for a religious civil war In Iraq, which promptly commenced as the US began keeping it's forces on base. The idea that COIN and Gen. Petraeus salvaged victory in Iraq is just false. The Iraqis knew that the US was not staying in Iraq and decided to save their bullets for each other.

Afghanistan:
Unless you want to argue that Tora Bora was a conspiracy to keep Bin Laden alive. The US Army manifestly failed in it's objective to capture or kill him. The generals that signed off on Rumsfeld's plan should have resigned: the idea that the Northern Alliance was going to control Afghanistan without massive military support forever from the US was laughable. The Army's racism made what was likely an unwinnable "counter-insurgency" war laughable. The idea that the US was going to defeat the Taliban with air strikes was laughable. The training of the Afghan "Army" is a laughable and utterly corrupt fiction... etc.

You don't get to blame the politicians. Generals are perfectly capable of saying a strategy isn't going to work and by and large (except for the generals forced out before 2003) they signed onto plans and then proceeded to fuck them up: Abu Ghraib was a military defeat and a self-inflicted one.
posted by ennui.bz at 10:04 AM on February 18, 2013 [6 favorites]


Abu Ghraib

Actually, that was a rare case where officers were fired. Base commander Colonel Thomas Pappas was relieved of duty, charged with dereliction of duty and eventually removed from the service. His superior Brig. General Janis Karpinski was demoted to Colonel. They should have gotten worse, but at least they were fired.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 10:14 AM on February 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


Surge combined with Anbar Awakening and Petraeus' leadership greatly improved conditions in Iraq - see Kaplan's new book, Insurgents.

Tommy Franks, according to Ricks, screwed the pooch in Tora Bora.

And, I'd still blame politicians.
posted by vonstadler at 10:16 AM on February 18, 2013


You don't get to blame the politicians.

How about Paul Bremer, who singlehandedly dismantled the existing Iraqi security structure and armed the resistance long enough to allow Iran to take over logistical support?

The generals that signed off on Rumsfeld's plan should have resigned

Do we get to blame that politician?

Now, unlike Americans, the Iraqis were perfectly aware that they had shown the US the door, that US was not staying in Iraq...

A decision made by soldiers or politicians?

No one's saying that every decision everyone in uniform has made in the last decade has been the right one. But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were fundamentally different from what the military had been preparing and resourcing for, and the feeling in the service is that the politicians didn't respond quickly enough (viz. up-armored Humvees) to win the peace. So when you say "it's not inconclusive: the military failed both in Iraq and in Afghanistan," there are a lot of people who did not come to that conclusion.
posted by Etrigan at 10:18 AM on February 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


His superior Brig. General Janis Karpinski was demoted to Colonel. They should have gotten worse, but at least they were fired.

The problem here was absolutely nothing happened to Ricardo Sanchez. Karpinski, a reservist, took the fall for an active duty officer who was overall responsible for everything happening in theater, and consequently proving Ricks' point.
posted by vonstadler at 10:20 AM on February 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


You don't get to blame the politicians.

I absolutely do. Remember (4-star General) Eric Shinseki? Remember when Rumsfeld and the PNAC crowd in the White House said "We want to invade Iraq" and he said "We'll need 400,000 troops" and they forced him to retire?

For some reason the Generals that came after Shinseki didn't gainsay Cheney and Rumsfeld after that. Iraq was almost exclusively a colossal failure of the political masters of the armed forces to listen to the good advice of their senior military leadership.

Nearly all subsequent failures in Iraq can be traced directly to the incident above. We sent too few troops to keep the peace in too large of an area because Rumsfeld wanted his war on the cheap.
posted by chimaera at 10:27 AM on February 18, 2013 [11 favorites]


You would call these military failures rather than failures on the part of American politics?

Why "rather than" rather than "in addition to"?
posted by DU at 11:23 AM on February 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


You don't get to blame the politicians.

The hell I don't.

Do you know a lot of military folks? Do you know how many people have stayed on with the military not because they believed in the plan or the cause, but rather because they didn't want to feel like they were abandoning their buddies to what they knew was a shitty situation? Do you believe that high-ranking officers are somehow immune to that?

If you're of the sort who believes the whole military should've just refused to go in and follow legal orders (no matter how stupid they may have been, they were backed by legal authority), I see no point in further discussion. However, you should consider that perhaps those generals you believe should've resigned may have instead decided to swallow a bitter pill forced upon them by civilian leadership and do the best they could with what they had so as to mitigate the damage to the service, the mission and perhaps (at least in some cases) even the populations of Iraq and Afghanistan.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 11:54 AM on February 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


You don't get to blame the politicians.

You do when the Commander-in-Chief is one.
posted by spaltavian at 12:02 PM on February 18, 2013


I absolutely do. Remember (4-star General) Eric Shinseki? Remember when Rumsfeld and the PNAC crowd in the White House said "We want to invade Iraq" and he said "We'll need 400,000 troops" and they forced him to retire?

For some reason the Generals that came after Shinseki didn't gainsay Cheney and Rumsfeld after that. Iraq was almost exclusively a colossal failure of the political masters of the armed forces to listen to the good advice of their senior military leadership.

Nearly all subsequent failures in Iraq can be traced directly to the incident above. We sent too few troops to keep the peace in too large of an area because Rumsfeld wanted his war on the cheap.


Yes, and thus those generals are responsible for their failure, the one they signed up for when they decided that their careers were more important than winning a war, not to mention the country they serve.

Rumsfeld, Bremer, Cheney, Wolfowitz all have their own circle of hell. Iraq was no more winnable in 2003 than it was in 1991. That was Shinseki's point. It was an obvious point. It should have been obvious in 1991 but by 2003 everyone knew, but no one thought President Cheney was crazy enough to do it... he was supposed to be the serious person behind the boy president.

However, you should consider that perhaps those generals you believe should've resigned may have instead decided to swallow a bitter pill forced upon them by civilian leadership and do the best they could with what they had so as to mitigate the damage to the service, the mission and perhaps (at least in some cases) even the populations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

wow. Godwin save you. they swore an oath to the constitution of the U.S. of A not the army, navy, air force or marines. Doing it for your buddies is the worst excuse. It's not football, it's killing people. I repeat myself: hold the politicians accountable for their own crimes but if those generals signed on for hopeless and useless fights then they are, first and foremost, responsible for the outcomes and are just as responsible for the host of useless deaths.
posted by ennui.bz at 12:05 PM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's just depressing. If the US military was a football team you'd have no trouble throwing the whole coaching staff under the bus for a long, aggravating 6 years of losses in Iraq-season play. No matter if the owner is an evil dumbass.
posted by ennui.bz at 12:08 PM on February 18, 2013


wow. Godwin save you.

Wow. You're the one who went there, not me.

Iraq & Afghanistan were bad, yes. They were simply not the Holocaust.

But I can see this isn't a discussion worth continuing.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 12:24 PM on February 18, 2013


If the military was a football team we'd won a long time ago!

“Billy tries to imagine the vast systems that support these athletes. They are among the best-cared for creatures in the history of the planet, beneficiaries of the best nutrition, the latest technologies, the finest medical care, they live at the very pinnacle of American innovation and abundance, which inspires an extraordinary thought - send them to fight the war! Send them just as they are this moment, well rested, suited up, psyched for brutal combat, send the entire NFL! Attack with all our bears and raiders, our ferocious redskins, our jets, eagles, falcons, chiefs, patriots, cowboys - how could a bunch of skinny hajjis in man-skits and sandals stand a chance against these all-Americans? Resistance is futile, oh Arab foes. Surrender now and save yourself a world of hurt, for our mighty football players cannot be stopped, they are so huge, so strong, so fearsomely ripped that mere bombs and bullets bounce off their bones of steel. Submit, lest our awesome NFL show you straight to the flaming gates of hell!”
― Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

posted by vonstadler at 12:25 PM on February 18, 2013


That's Byng with a Y.
posted by BWA at 12:47 PM on February 18, 2013


I repeat myself: hold the politicians accountable for their own crimes but if those generals signed on for hopeless and useless fights then they are, first and foremost, responsible for the outcomes and are just as responsible for the host of useless deaths.

No, you contradict yourself. Is it your opinion that the politicians should be accountable, or that the generals are first and foremost responsible?

And what world do you live in where generals get to "sign on"?
posted by Etrigan at 3:07 PM on February 18, 2013


The problem here was absolutely nothing happened to Ricardo Sanchez. Karpinski, a reservist, took the fall for an active duty officer who was overall responsible for everything happening in theater, and consequently proving Ricks' point.
Karpinski didn't provide oversight and training for her unit. She let the MI officers use her people to "soften" the prisoners for interrogation--this is not just against military order and discipline, it was illegal. The chain of command was violated, and she did nothing but whine a little. Her unit's training was improvised by her NCO's, and accomplished by an NCO whose credentials were that he had served as a corrections officer in his day job.

She failed to know what was going on in her unit. Because her people were left unsupervised, in surreal circumstances and over such a long period of time that they drifted into madness, they committed actual crimes against the prisoners in their charge. She ought to have been held accountable for those crimes. The MI unit skated. Another miscarriage. The responsibility for this goes not just to the ranking officers, but to Rumsfeld and Bush, themselves.

I agree with the argument, above, that most generals nowadays are well trained, and spend their lives preparing for command. I also recognize that 06 and higher-ranked officers are political animals as well as troop commanders. The military has been a firm believer in the Peter Principal. It seems wasteful to promote a man out of his best job, but pressure from the rising corps of officers and, I guess, the officers' own aspirations are too hard to resist. A CIB and other battle decorations aren't the best indicators of his/her prowess in this respect.

In a pond filled with generals, you must kiss a lot frogs if you are trying to find a good combat prince. But before that, you should have a CIC who knows when to fight a war, and why. The military specialists will tell the CIC the best way to accomplish the mission. We lack much in this respect.

I have served under good officers, and bad ones, but fortunately, never the worst ones. My heart goes out to all the hard-working dumbshits who carry this deadly burden, and to the ones they kill on account of the cynical bastards who can't seem to tell the difference between a war, a business opportunity, and a political campaign.
posted by mule98J at 6:15 PM on February 18, 2013


Saying that the military failed at nation building is like complaining that your sword makes a lousy carpeneter's saw.

If you are going to embark on a campaign of Nation Building, shouldn't you bring along the right tools. Peacekeeping / Police training / "hearts and minds winning" are indeed not part of the usual soldier skillset, but perhaps they should be (have been?).
posted by Popular Ethics at 7:17 PM on February 18, 2013


Saying that the military failed at nation building is like complaining that your sword makes a lousy carpeneter's saw.

If you are going to embark on a campaign of Nation Building, shouldn't you bring along the right tools.


This goes back to the idea that the U.S. military didn't embark on the campaign, they had it embarked upon them (after years of saying, over and over again, that they weren't good at nation-building -- see the Madeleine Albright-Colin Powell kerfluffle over using the military in the Balkans).
posted by Etrigan at 7:44 PM on February 18, 2013


> > I repeat myself: hold the politicians accountable for their own crimes but if those generals signed on for hopeless and useless fights then they are, first and foremost, responsible for the outcomes and are just as responsible for the host of useless deaths.

> No, you contradict yourself. Is it your opinion that the politicians should be accountable, or that the generals are first and foremost responsible?

His statement is perfectly clear and answers your question. Hold politicians accountable for their own crimes; hold generals responsible for hopeless and useless fights they participate in.

Hundreds of thousands are dead - there is more than enough blame to go around.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:19 PM on February 18, 2013


This goes back to the idea that the U.S. military didn't embark on the campaign, they had it embarked upon them (after years of saying, over and over again, that they weren't good at nation-building -- see the Madeleine Albright-Colin Powell kerfluffle over using the military in the Balkans).

Right, but isn't training the troops under the Generals' purview? Knowing that they were more likely to be forced into nation building than in a defensive war, couldn't they have directed more funds towards civil peace training? What with the revolutions popping up everywhere these days, it would still be a useful skillset to develop.
posted by Popular Ethics at 11:34 PM on February 18, 2013


BWA: Byng Bong. Encourager with two rs too. Oh well. At least he was, in fact, shot.

Also, I totes blame the politicians in Afghanistan. Talk about path-dependent mission failure. Put in bowl a power a bunch of thugs with blood on their hands and legitimacy amongst a tiny proportion of the population, delay building up a proper army for ages and instead trust their militias, systematically exclude the majority ethnicity from political settlements; add the merest sprinking of 7000 troops largely responsible for 'hunting Bin Laden' plus 4000 European 'troops' in Kabul - all because you're in a big old strop against the Talibs and Baghdad's on your mind. Most of these are clear mistakes, and are politically driven.
posted by YouRebelScum at 5:34 AM on February 19, 2013


Yes, and thus those generals are responsible for their failure, the one they signed up for when they decided that their careers were more important than winning a war, not to mention the country they serve.

Those generals knew at that point that Iraq was going to be invaded. There was nothing they could do about it. Which meant they had two choices - to resign, or to stay and lend their competence to making things less of a disaster than they might otherwise have been. The civillians control the military for a damn good reason (just ask the Praetorian Guard), and attempting to break that would be catastrophic. Which means after there's already been a high profile scalp you have two choices - a near-meaningless gesture as far as anything practical is concerned or to do their jobs and try to prevent the politicians driving everything off a cliff.

Staying was possibly the more principled choice. It was certainly the more practically useful one.
posted by Francis at 6:43 AM on February 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


> > I repeat myself: hold the politicians accountable for their own crimes but if those generals signed on for hopeless and useless fights then they are, first and foremost, responsible for the outcomes and are just as responsible for the host of useless deaths.

> No, you contradict yourself. Is it your opinion that the politicians should be accountable, or that the generals are first and foremost responsible?

His statement is perfectly clear and answers your question. Hold politicians accountable for their own crimes; hold generals responsible for hopeless and useless fights they participate in.


It's the use of "first and foremost" and "just as responsible" that rub me the wrong way. When you're given a bad hand and told you can either play it or make someone else (who is likely a close friend and at the very least a friend of a friend) play it, but either way, it's going to be played, it's not as easy to say, "Well, you played it, so it's your fault."

Not holding people responsible for hopeless and useless fights they have to participate in is a fairly large part of the military ethos, because sometimes you have to send people to a hopeless and useless fight for the greater good (for instance, look at all the people who died before they ever got on the beach at Normandy -- everyone involved knew that driving into those machine guns was suicide, but it still had to be done). The person you point the finger at is the one who decided that it was for the greater good, and that's far more the politicians than the generals.

Let me remind you that this whole subthread started when ennui.bz asserted, "it's not inconclusive: the military failed both in Iraq and in Afghanistan." and then doubled down with "You don't get to blame the politicians" before claiming that he did blame the politicians while simultaneously saying that the generals "are, first and foremost, responsible for the outcomes". He has not yet posted a comment that did not move his own goalposts.
posted by Etrigan at 8:28 AM on February 19, 2013


This goes back to the idea that the U.S. military didn't embark on the campaign, they had it embarked upon them (after years of saying, over and over again, that they weren't good at nation-building -- see the Madeleine Albright-Colin Powell kerfluffle over using the military in the Balkans).

Right, but isn't training the troops under the Generals' purview? Knowing that they were more likely to be forced into nation building than in a defensive war, couldn't they have directed more funds towards civil peace training? What with the revolutions popping up everywhere these days, it would still be a useful skillset to develop.


They're doing so, to a certain extent, but that's a fairly radical redefinition of what the military is and goes back to that existential crisis that the Army in particular, and the other services to a lesser extent, are going through right now. The Army is made to hit people very hard until they stay down. Picking them up afterward was always an afterthought, because every dollar and soldier devoted toward that is taken away from the hitting part, and there are other U.S. government agencies and organizations that can pick people up, but there's no one else who can hit them.

Also, it's a lot easier for us to see all this now than in the mid-'90s, when all this training would have been useful for the beginnings of Iraq and Afghanistan, and when the military was also undergoing a similar post-Soviet existential crisis that also included a big drawdown after we'd just fought a more straightforward hitting-until-they-stay-down war that didn't include the picking-them-up-afterward part.
posted by Etrigan at 8:35 AM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


The military did fail in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The United States has the largest military force in history. Indeed, the US Defense Department appears to be the largest individual project in the history of human beings (it's probably the largest polluter in history too).

And yet this largest, most powerful and certainly most expensive military was unable to prevail in two tiny countries. It's not just that there are multiple US states more powerful than either Iraq or Afghanistan - there are individual US companies with greater earnings than the entire GDP of Iraq.

Consider that the generals of this military made wildly unrealistic evaluations of both situations - that the locals would, so to speak, embrace the US troops and cover them with flowers.

Consider also that the United States has been almost continuously in conflict with countries in the Middle East since the 80s, and had been sabre-rattling against Iraq for over a decade before the actual war - people above who are claiming that the poor, poor military people were blindsided by this unexpected war need to remember those facts.

And absolutely do not forget that the "Defense" Department was tested on 9/11 and got zero out of four. Do note that this complete failure of the "Defense" system did not result in anyone getting fired - indeed, almost everyone involved was promoted. And also note that this did not result in any systematic changes at all to our "Defense" Department's defense strategy. (Please don't tell me that, "They couldn't have known." One of the specific tasks of NORAD has always been to track commercial jets for exactly this reason - even if the government hadn't got specific information that terrorists were going to fly buildings into planes in lower Manhattan.)

(To lighten the mood slightly, The Onion on this subject...)
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:12 AM on February 19, 2013


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