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Octavian Manea interviews MIT’s Roger D. Peterson

Friday, April 19th, 2013

Another installment of Octavian Manea’s excellent COIN interview series at SWJ. This one focuses on social science and varieties of insurgency:

Breaking Down “Hearts and Minds”: The Power of Individual Causal Mechanisms in an Insurgency 

….OM: In your research you pointed out to a spectrum of conceivable individual roles in an insurgency. What is the methodology behind this typology?

RDP: This methodology comes from my 2001 book (Resistance and Rebellion: Lessons from Eastern Europe) which focused on Lithuanian resistance to Soviets in the 1940’s. Insurgency is a complex phenomenon, especially in how violent organization and networks are created and sustained, and the methodology of that book involved breaking down this complexity into component parts and then building back up into a coherent whole. At the base of this process is the way individuals position themselves relative to the dramatic and violent events of insurgency. Most people may wish to remain neutral and just take care of their families but events push significant numbers of individuals into roles of unarmed support of insurgents, or local armed position of a militia, membership in a mobile non-local organization, or equivalent positions in support of the government.  Furthermore, individuals may move back and forth along this spectrum of roles. If one is skeptical of broad and vague theories at a high level of aggregation, as I am, then you need to get down and observe dynamics at a basic level. Observing movement along this spectrum of roles is one way to do that. 

…..Is it FM 3-24 and the whole contemporary Western COIN discourse too narrow, too much focused on rational, cost/benefit models of decision-making? Is it too restrictive when making this inventory of driving motivations or causal mechanisms?

RDP: I think there is a tendency in the Western academic analysis to focus on rational theories. Those theories are straightforward.  But they also might be too straightforward, too simple.  In Iraq, the coalition did not plan on the emotion of resentment stemming from a status reversal affecting Sunni calculations in the beginning stages of the conflict. We did not understand the revenge norms that exist in some of the places. We did not fully understand the social norms that helped to produce the tribal militias in Anbar province.  We did not understand the psychological mechanisms underlying the Sunni view of the new world they were living in. 

The last part is a curious lacuna.

The incompetence of the planning for the occupation of Iraq has been amply recorded – the high level disdain of General Tommy Franks and Secretary Rumsfeld for what befell the day after victory, the keeping of professional Arabists at arms length in preference for Beltway contractors and college kids with AEI connections, the haplessness of Jay Garner and the political obtuseness of Paul Bremer ad so on. This is not what I mean about lacuna.

I mean something more fundamental, in terms of understanding human nature as the root of political behavior and therefore political violence. We are all familiar with the Clausewitzian trinity (or should be) but less attention is paid to the motivational factors that make men decide to stand, fight and die or stand aside. Thucydides also had a trinity that did not attempt to capture the nature of war but rather explain why wars happened and it seems to me to be of particular use for evaluating the decision in small wars to pick up a gun or not, to side with the government or join the rebellion:

“Surely, Lacedaemonians, neither by the patriotism that we displayed at that crisis, nor by the wisdom of our counsels, do we merit our extreme unpopularity with the Hellenes, not at least unpopularity for our empire. That empire we acquired by no violent means, but because you were unwilling to prosecute to its conclusion the war against the barbarian, and because the allies attached themselves to us and spontaneously asked us to assume the command. And the nature of the case first compelled us to advance our empire to its present height; fear being our principal motive, though honour and interest afterwards came in. And at last, when almost all hated us, when some had already revolted and had been subdued, when you had ceased to be the friends that you once were, and had become objects of suspicion and dislike, it appeared no longer safe to give up our empire; especially as all who left us would fall to you. And no one can quarrel with a people for making, in matters of tremendous risk, the best provision that it can for its interest. 

Fear, honor and interest are ever present in “calculation” both by men and by the political communities they compose and the factions that threaten to tear them apart. All the more so in a defeated and broken country divided by ethnicity and sect where all parties were uneasily eyeing the conqueror. No special knowledge of Arab culture should have been required to anticipate that Iraqi men, if made desperate by uncertainty and circumstance, might have at least seen it in their interest to achieve some measure of security with the gun and to enact policies of carrots and sticks a priori to discourage that, before the insurgency gained critical mass.

Awareness of the universality of the Thucydidean trinity would not have in itself guaranteed success in Iraq but knowing it is a rudimentary minimum of political competence upon which you can at least build.


Sherlock Holmes, Hannibal Lector and Simonides

Sunday, March 3rd, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- the art of memory, with a sidelong glance at swans, typhoid and theodicy ]

Thomas Harris (and by extension Hannibal Lector) has been interested in memory palaces for a long time. We can begin to infer this this because Lector describes his hobby in Red Dragon (1981) and again in Silence of the Lambs (1988):

So — church collapses?


As you can tell from that last comment in the Silence of the Lambs quote — to my mind the most brilliant presentation of the problem of theodicy for our day — if there’s a God worth defending, it has to be a God who allows sparrows to fall, typhoid to accompany swans in the vast ecology of existence, churches to collapse on worshipers, and “bad things to happen to good people” from time to time.

And such things, specifically including collapses of religious buildings atop worshipers, do indeed happen in fact as well as fiction.

And they don’t only happen to Christians, either… Bon is the shamanistic religious tradition of Tibet, prior to — and later, somewhat assimilated by — Buddhism


The thing is, when I read that Hannibal Lector collected church collapses, it not only made me start to take note of them myself, it also made me think of Simonides. As Frances Yates tells us in her book, The Art of Memory:

At a banquet given by a nobleman of Thessaly named Scopas, the poet Simonides of Ceos chanted a lyric poem in honour of his host but including a passage in praise of Castor and Pollux. Scopas meanly told the poet that he would only pay him halfthe sum agreed upon for the panegyric and that he must obtain the balance from the twin gods to whom he had devoted half the poem. A little later, a message was brought in to Simonides that two young men were waiting outside who wished to see him. He rose from the banquet and went out but could find no one. During his absence the roof of the banqueting hall fell in, crushing Scopas and all the guests to death beneath the ruins; the corpses were so mangled that the relatives who came to take them away for burial were unable to identify them. But Simonides remembered the places at which they had been sitting at the table and was therefore able to indicate to the relatives which were their dead. The invisible callers, Castor and Pollux, had handsomely paid for their share in the panegyric by drawing Simonides away from the banquet just before the crash. And this experience suggested to the poet the principles of the art of memory of which he is said to have been the inventor. Noting that it was through his memory of the places at which the guests had been sitting that he had been able to identify the bodies, he realised that orderly arrangement is essential for good memory.

And by way of reinforcing my Lector-Simonides conjecture, Lector certainly had a remarkable interest in memory, as we learn from his dialogue with Clarice Starling:

“Did you do the drawings on your walls, Doctor?”
“Do you think I called in a decorator?”
“The one over the sink is a European city?”
“It’s Florence. That’s the Palazzo Vecchio and the Duomo, seen from the Belvedere.”
“Did you do it from memory, all the detail?”
“Memory, Officer Starling, is what I have instead of a view.”

A belvedere, from the Italian, is “a structure (as a cupola or a summerhouse) designed to command a view” — and a beautiful view at that. Belvedere is also, ironically, the name of the town in Ohio where Buffalo Bill, Lector’s serial killer ex-patient, lives…


So it didn’t surprise me to discover that in Hannibal (1999), the book that follows Silence, this brilliant man who as we have seen collects church collapses and has an exquisite memory in place of a view, is revealed as a practitioner of Simonides’ art:

The memory palace was a mnemonic system well known to ancient scholars and much information was preserved in them through the Dark Ages while Vandals burned the books. Like scholars before him, Dr. Lecter stores an enormous amount of information keyed to objects in his thousand rooms, but unlike the ancients, Dr.Lecter has a second purpose for his palace; sometimes he lives there. He has passed years among its exquisite collections, while his body lay bound on a violent ward with screams buzzing the steel bars like hell’s own harp.

Hannibal Lecter’s palace is vast, even by medieval standards. Translated to the tangible world it would rival the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul for size and complexity.

We catch up to him as the swift slippers of his mind pass from the foyer into the Great Hall of the Seasons. The palace is built according to the rules discovered by Simonides of Ceos and elaborated by Cicero four hundred years later; it is airy, high-ceilinged, furnished with objects and tableaux that are vivid, striking, sometimes shocking and absurd, and often beautiful. The displays are well spaced and well lighted like those of a great museum. But the walls are not the neutral colors of museum walls. Like Giotto, Dr. Lecter has frescoed the walls of his mind.

Brilliant. And a delight, years later, to have my hunch connecting the church collapses and prison cell with only memory for a view with Simonides and the Art of Memory confirmed by the third book and film in the series…

You’ll note, btw, that the Lector (caveat lector) of the first two books has now become Lecter in alignment with the films starring Anthony Hopkins.


I love symmetries, so let’s move from the most monstrous criminal mind in literature, to the greatest detective…

Sherlock Holmes — in his latest television incarnation — builds memory palaces of a sort, though I’m not sure Simonides would recognize them.

I’m posting the clip from the series here to honor my son Emlyn, with whom I have been watching the series…


And then there’s the Jesuit whose use of the Art is explored in Jonathan Spence‘s The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci:

In 1596 Matteo Ricci taught the Chinese how to build a memory palace. He told them that the size of the palace would depend on how much they wanted to remember: the most ambitious construction would consist of several hundred buildings of all shapes and sizes, “the more there are the better it will be,” said Ricci, thought he added that one did not have to build on a gradiose scale right away. One coul create modest palaces, or one could build less dramatic structures such as a temple compound, a cluster of government offices, a public hostel, or a merchants’s meeting lodge. If one wished to begin on a still smaller scale, then one could erect a simple reception hall, a pavilion, or a studio. And if one wanted an intimate space one could use just the corner of a pavilion, or an altar in a temple, or even such a homely object as a wardrobe or a divan.

You’ll note that in this early example of virtual reality as an pedagogical technology, Ricci doesn’t start with the easy stuff, the single wardrobe or divan — he begins with “the most ambitious construction”…

Enough for now. When I want to talk about in a follow up post is detail… the crucial importance of detail.


The Hobbit: Narrative Validation or Vandalism?

Sunday, December 30th, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey a film by Peter Jackson

The Hobbit:Or There and Back Again by J.R.R. Tolkien 

Last night, I took the kids and my nephew to see The Hobbit. In essence, it was less the classic tale woven by J.R.R. Tolkien than a sequel to The Avengers with a cast of Dwarves.

Peter Jackson has made, as he did with The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, a visually stunning film with The Hobbit. Jackson once again excelled at translating many physical settings of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth into screen reality. Erebor looks the way you would expect an age-old Dwarven kingdom should. Dol Guldor (alluded to ever so briefly in the book) appears to be the place of dread that would attract a great malevolent spirit like Sauron, This extends to some of the characters; the Great Goblin’s semi-comic personage manages to capture some of the original charm of The Hobbit as a children’s story before it later became part of the narrative for Tolkien’s larger and darker romantic epic, The Lord of the Rings.

Unfortunately, the tendency that Jackson demonstrated as the films of The Lord of the Rings progressed,to take ever greater artistic liberties with Tolkien’s story, have, with his swollen ego, run riot in The Hobbit. The primary antagonist in the film, Azog the Orc chieftain is lifted from other Tolkien material, given mutant powers, a scary metal hand and an albino warg by Jackson and is brutally imposed on the story. The wizard Radagast the Brown, whose head for some reason is encrusted with bird crap, gets much screen time as he  zips around Middle-Earth like Mario Andretti on a sleigh pulled by magical bunnies when he is not getting high on ‘shrooms.

What began as a necessary fleshing out of narrative allusions and foreshadowing to effectively translate literature into a movie ended up as Jackson’s sheer invention and gratuitous abuse of the characters, all of whom sword fight more often than Conan the Barbarian and more bloodily than Leonidas. If Thorin had shouted in the midst of battle with the Goblins, “Dwarves! Tonight we dine in Mordor!” no one in the audience would have been the least bit surprised.  Zorro and the Three Musketeers had less skill with a blade in hand-to-hand combat than do these Dwarves, Gandalf or at times, Bilbo Baggins.

The only scenes where Jackson manages genuine fidelity to the story are the ones with Gollum, Bilbo and their Riddle-Game – perhaps out of fear of trivializing his previous movies, Tolkien’s actual dialogue and plot  enters the script before vanishing again into a Jacksonian cinematic homage to every American action movie ever made. No wonder Christopher Tolkien looks on with weary despair.

There’s a name for this kind of genre….

Fan fiction.


Point and Counterpoint in Defining Warfare II.

Monday, December 10th, 2012

A few comments on the article by Lt. Col. Jill Long at SWJ and the hardheaded critique by Jason Fritz of Inkspots to which I linked yesterday.

First, the attempt that Long was making in posing an alternative to Clausewitz was a laudable one, in the sense that every serious student who picks up a classic text, Clausewitz, Thucydides, Sun Tzu, Marx, Plato, Machievelli, Musashi and so on, should do more than simply try to understand the author and accept their views uncritically. Doing so would make you a parrot, not a scholar. Instead, we need to wrestle with and challenge the text; try to poke holes in the argument, turn it inside out and break it apart, if we are able. Sometimes we can make a legitimate chip or dent but most of the time, we are going to fail – the reason people have read these books for two or twenty centuries is because the arguments of brilliant minds within them continue to have enduring relevance.

I don’t think Long succeeded in her effort here, but if every officer had as part of their PME to formally construct an alternative to Clausewitz as she tried, we’d have a more strategically informed military and arguably one that better understood Clausewitz. If nothing else, Long was intellectually more courageous than the majority of her brother officers to make the attempt in the full glare of public scrutiny and that is praiseworthy

That said, “What is War? A New Point of View” is problematic. In my view, there are three major structural flaws in Long’s article: first, I don’t think she wrestled with On War  to plausibly justify her opening claim that that Clausewitz’s definition of war was obsolete. As Colonel David Maxwell pointed out at SWJ, that kind of bold discussion requires some reference to CvC’s “remarkable trinity”. Jason Fritz was probably speaking for a Clausewitzian legion when he, quite correctly, jumped on her argument for using dictionary definitions(!),  not tackling Clausewitz’s actual definition of war in asserting it was an anachronism or that such a definition can and does apply to non-state actors making war as well as states. You can’t make sweeping claims as a declaratory preface to the subject you’d really like to talk about – your audience will demand proof of your claim first.

The second major problem, is Long similarly dismisses the accepted definition of war under international law which is not only as equally large a field as Clausewitzian thought, it’s far larger and more important – being, you know – binding international law!  Disproving either of these alone is a fit subject for a dissertation or a book, not a paragraph. Sometimes we must learn how to construct a melody before we attempt to write a symphony.

The third structural problem is one of basic epistemology. Long’s assertion that Clausewitz’s (or any ) definition is not sufficiently broad because it is simple and that her definition is because it is complex is fundamentally ass-backwards. The question of definitions is one of the oldest ones in Western philosophy and we know that simple and profound definitions are by nature broadly stated while the negative dialectical process of qualifying them narrows their scope of application by revising the definition in a more complex form.

Jason Fritz raised a very interesting objection in his rebuttal:

….Long fails to adequately describe how the world has changed or how the “Global Era” plays into this. She states that the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 have changed how we should perceive the world. It seems that the she believes that that day should have awakened Americans to the threat of non-state actors. Long also states that “‘interconnected systems of trade, finance, information, and security’ demand a larger perspective when considering the engagement of imposing national will on others.” Both of these points are stated in defiance of history. Globalists enjoy selling the greatness and threats of our “interconnected systems” in the modern day, but that presumes that the world is newly interconnected. We know this is not true. Interconnection in today’s world may be faster and easier, but it is not new. States and other political groups have interacted over the elements listed for millennia – look only to the period of global colonization to see how long we as humans have been at this. Long does not describe how today’s globalization is unique and why that changes how we define war.

There are important distinctions to be made here but my short comment would be that globalization has had a significant effect upon warfare but not upon war.

As Jude Wanniski once pointed out, there is and has always been only one “system” – the whole world. What globalization has changed among the constituent parts is the velocity of transactions, their frequency, the potential number of players making transactions, where the system has degrees of transparency and opacity, the incentives and capabilities of political “gatekeepers” to control exchange of information or goods among other things. It is a different global economy than the one under the auspices of Bretton Woods or the quasi-autarkic decade of the Great Depression or the first globalization that died in August 1914.

Most of these things have direct bearing on economics, politics or policy but indirectly on the conduct of warfare as well. Balance of comparative advantages can be altered, situational awareness of conflicts can be heightened and the line between de jure war and “mere violence” uncomfortably blurred. Generally, statesmen have reacted to globalization by imposing greater political constraints – usually more than would be tactically wise or efficient –  on their own use of military force in less than existential conflicts. Generally, this is perceived as an aversion to taking or inflicting casualties and a legalistic-bureaucratic micromanaging of  military commanders and troops.Whether such politically self-imposed limits are useful in pursuing a strategy for military victory is another question, one that can only be answered in specific contexts. Sometimes restraint and de-escalation is the best answer on the strategic level.

What was good in the Long article? In my view, the root idea of conceptualizing of war on a spectrum; it is a useful cognitive device that could accommodate nuances, ideal for examining case studies or changes in warfare over time. But would be more persuasive if developed with accepted definitions.


When Does Conflict Become “War”?

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

When does mere conflict end and war begin?

Great philosophers of strategy and statecraft did not treat all conflict as war but regarded war as a discernably distinct phenomenon, different from both peace and other kinds of conflict. War had a special status and unique character, glorious and terrible:

“Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting. “

    -Sun Tzu

“When the Corcyraeans heard of their preparations they came to Corinth with envoys from Lacedaemon and Sicyon, whom they persuaded to accompany them, and bade her recall the garrison and settlers, as she had nothing to do with Epidamnus. If, however, she had any claims to make, they were willing to submit the matter to the arbitration of such of the cities in Peloponnese as should be chosen by mutual agreement, and that the colony should remain with the city to whom the arbitrators might assign it. They were also willing to refer the matter to the oracle at Delphi. If, in defiance of their protestations, war was appealed to, they should be themselves compelled by this violence to seek friends in quarters where they had no desire to seek them, and to make even old ties give way to the necessity of assistance. The answer they got from Corinth was that, if they would withdraw their fleet and the barbarians from Epidamnus, negotiation might be possible; but, while the town was still being besieged, going before arbitrators was out of the question. The Corcyraeans retorted that if Corinth would withdraw her troops from Epidamnus they would withdraw theirs, or they were ready to let both parties remain in statu quo, an armistice being concluded till judgment could be given. “


“Thus, therefore, the political object, as the original motive of the war, will be the standard for determining both the aim of the military force, and also the amount of effort to be made. This it cannot be in itself; but it is so in relation to both the belligerent states, because we are concerned with realities, not with mere abstractions. One and the same political object may produce totally different effects upon different people, or even upon the same people at different times; we can, therefore, only admit the political object as the measure, by considering it in its effects upon those masses which it is to move, and consequently the nature of those masses also comes into consideration. It is easy to see that thus the result may be very different according as these masses are animated with a spirit which will infuse vigour into the action or otherwise.”

- Carl von Clausewitz 

We see from the above that war was not regarded as the same as either the political conflict which precipitated it or even, in the case of the Corcyraeans, the violence done against their interests in Epidamnus by the Corinthians, which did not yet rise to be considered war in the eyes of either Corcyra or Corinth. Instead the occupation of Epidamnus was something we would recognize today as coercion.  Like war itself, coercion operates by a calculus that is only partially rational; not only is the psychological pressure of coercion subject to passions of the moment, our reactions to the threat of violence -and willingness to engage in it – may be rooted in evolutionary adaptations going back to the dawn of mankind. Coercion, or resistance to it, usually is the midwife of war.

Prehistoric man lived a life that archaeology increasingly indicates, contrary to philosophical myth-making, was endemic in it’s violent brutality. Whether the violence between or within tiny paleolithic hunter-gatherer bands constituted private murder or warfare is a matter of debate, but the existence of the violence itself is not. Earliest firm evidence of a possible large skirmish or massacre dates back to 14,000 BC and definitive evidence for large-scale, organized battle dates to the end of the Neolithic period and dawn of the Bronze Age in 3500 BC.  Lawrence Keeley, in War Before Civilization, describes primitive man as being hyperviolent in comparison with those noted pacifists, the ancient Romans:

….For example, during a five and a half month period, the Dugum Dani tribesmen of New Guinea were observed to participate in seven full battles and nine raids. One Yanomamo village in South America was raided twenty-five times over a fifteen month period…. 

The high frequencies of prestate warfare contrast with those of even the most aggressive ancient and modern civilized states. The early Roman Republic (510-121 BC) initiated war or was attacked only about once every twenty years. During the late Republic and early Empire (118 BC -211 AD), wars started about once every six or seven years, most being civil wars and provincial revolts. Only a few of these later Roman wars involved any general mobilization of resources, and all were fought by the state’s small (relative to the size of the population) long-service, professional forces supported by normal taxation, localized food levies and plunder. In other words, most inhabitants of the Roman Empire were rarely directly involved in warfare and most experienced the Pax Romana unmolested over many generations. [Keeley,33] 

Simple, prestate societies probably waged “war” – a violent and deliberate conflict with rival groups and in alliance with rival groups against more distant interlopers – but the degree to which archaic and prehistoric humans culturally differentiated between this and their everyday, casual, homicidal violence remains unknown. Moreover, many academics would not accept the thesis of neolithic societies being “warlike”, much less, waging “war” as we understand the term until they rose to levels of social and political complexity generally denoted as chiefdoms, kingdoms and empires (“political” societies).

There’s something to that argument; a certain element of cultural identity is required to see the world in distinctly  ”us vs. them” terms instead of an atomized Hobbesian “all vs. all” but I suspect it is far more basic a level of communal identification than the level of cultural identity typical of sophisticated chiefdoms like Cahokia or ancient Hawaii. Cultural and communal identity would tend to focus violence toward outsiders while increasingly complex political and social organization could “shape” how violence took place, molding it into recognizable patterns by regulation, ritual, taboo and command of authority. Once there is enough societal complexity for a leadership to organize and direct mass violence with some crude degree of rational choice and control, not only is war possible but strategy is as well.

Once a society is sophisticated enough to employ violence or the threat of violence purposefully for diplomacy or warfare, it is making a political decision to separate mundane and nearly chronic “conflict” and “war” into different categories. This would appear to be a primitive form of economic calculation distinguishing between conflict that generates acceptable costs and manageable risks and those conflicts that pose unacceptable costs or existential risks. This would give the relationship between primitive tribes the character of bargaining, an ongoing negotiation where the common currencies were violence and propitiation, until one party vacated the area or ceased to exist, most wars then having an innate tendency to escalate toward genocide (our current limitations on warfare, such as they are, derive from greater social complexity and political control over the use of violence).

If an economic calculus is indeed the root of the political decision to recognize some conflicts as “war”, that raises some interesting questions about modernity and advanced  states. What happens  when a conflict occurs with a state sufficiently complex that the ruling elite see their class interests as distinct and superceding those of the state? The calculus and what is considered “acceptable” costs or risks in a conflict vice those mandating “war” shift dramatically away from what might be considered “rational” state interest.

In a society at such an end-state, seemingly intolerable conflict might be tolerated indefinitely while full-fledged wars could be waged over what would appear to be mere trivialities to the national interest.


In addition to some already excellent and extensive comments in the thread, I would like to turn your attention to an interview post at The Last Word on Nothing recommended byZack Beauchamp:

Horgan, Hayden, and the Last Word on Warfare 

Ann:  I understand both of you have written authoritative and charming books on war — John’s, just out, is called The End of War; and Tom’s is Sex and War — and that you’vediscussed these matters before.  I also understand you disagree about war.  How could you not agree?   I mean, war is just nasty stuff and we shouldn’t do it, right?

Tom: Ann, you’re poking the hornet’s nest right off the bat! I don’t think John and I disagree about war, but rather about peace. Don’t get me wrong: we both prefer the latter to the former, by a wide margin. And there are many things we do agree on, I think, such as the substantial observed decrease in the frequency and lethality of war over the past several centuries, and the idea that culture is an important part of the balance between war and peace. But I think we do have a difference of opinion about the attainability of peace (John) versus the inevitability of war (me). I think this makes John a better person than me, and certainly a more optimistic one. And I really, really hope he’s right. In my mind it comes down to an argument about human nature, and whether the impulses and behaviors of war are inborn or acquired. Or at least, that’s my take. John, what’s yours? [....]


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