Comparisons to Vietnam, ye gods

by Daniel on May 19, 2004

I don’t really want to make this look like a Hitchens pile-on, but one cannot allow things like this to pass without comment. Via Roger Ailes, we have Christopher Hitchens making the following claim:

I think my quarrel with the media would be different from yours. I think what isn‘t conveyed enough is the sheer evil and ruthlessness and indeed brilliant organization of the enemy. The media cliche about the war is that it‘s like Vietnam. The Vietnamese were a very civilized foe and if they had had weapons of mass destruction, for example, wouldn‘t have used them and didn‘t target civilians, did use women as fighters and organizers, were not torturers and mass murderers and so forth.

Shall we say that this is quite radically at odds with most mainstream histories of Vietnam? Hitchens may here being confusing the North Vietnames Army and the Communist Party of Viet Nam with some other force which fought a purely heroic war of liberation in a gentlemanly manner and had no links to totalitarianism. Perhaps he was thinking of the Hobbits, or somebody. It makes you wonder why several hundred thousand boat people decided to take their chances on the open seas rather than live under such a “civilised” regime.

Meanwhile, if it’s comparisons with Vietnam you’re after, this historic document (Col. Robert Heinl’s Armed Forces Journal article on the collapse of morale) is pretty good on the long-term consequences of being stuck with no hope of exit in a war nobody really wants to fight. It is profoundly to be hoped that things won’t be allowed to get this bad again; it took years to rebuild the US Army as an organisation.

{ 33 comments }

1

jdw 05.19.04 at 7:48 pm

He kinda vaguely has a point, though, doesn’t he? The torture practiced by the Vietnamese was of the kind that the US would like to practice — for intelligence gathering, not strictly sadism. I don’t think you can say the same thing about al-Qaeda. I guess there’s a difference, morally. And the Iraq-Vietnam comparisons are invariably overdrawn; the chief similarity seems to be that both are a mess.

Regardless, I don’t think it’s quite fair to hold a person too accountable for the soundbites his provides on TV. The remarks seem to be more-or-less off the cuff. (And as for piling on, hasn’t he suffered enough? The man sold his soul to appear on MSNBC opposite Bianca Jagger and Penn Jillette! I’d drink, too.)

2

JP 05.19.04 at 8:15 pm

He kinda vaguely has a point, though, doesn’t he? The torture practiced by the Vietnamese was of the kind that the US would like to practice — for intelligence gathering, not strictly sadism. I don’t think you can say the same thing about al-Qaeda.

Iraq not = Al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda not = Iraq.

3

Giles 05.19.04 at 8:15 pm

No idea how Hitchens became Daniel’s obssession but judging from this
http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/

he’s not alone.

4

Doctor Slack 05.19.04 at 8:33 pm

I’m truly amazed that Hitchens has gotten away with retroactively airbrushing the Viet Cong as much as he has. It takes the defensive “it’s totally not Vietnam” thing to new levels of clueless dishonesty — and the right wing of pro-war opinion seems to entirely lack the stones to call him on it.

The torture practiced by the Vietnamese was of the kind that the US would like to practice — for intelligence gathering, not strictly sadism.

I think it’s basically horseshit to pretend that anyone using torture is doing it strictly for intelligence-gathering, whatever they may tell themselves or claim publicly. This is particularly true of the US, which has plenty of qualified, proven interrogators at its disposal with a long history of getting intelligence from people without using psychological or physical torture.

Torture is an instrument of intimidation, and is well-known by now not to be that reliable a means of intelligence-gathering. It’s really a form, if you will, of terrorism. But, like terrorism, it ultimately advances no agenda but itself. Organizations that once used torture or terrorism ostensibly toward a purpose they thought was noble quickly find that it takes on a life of its own — in torturing “disloyal elements” to get information about their movements, they find the number of pissed-off people who need torturing just keeps growing.

5

Peter K. 05.19.04 at 8:52 pm

I remember the Iraqi Communist Party celebrating last year, what members were left, that is, after years of repression.

Also, the Vietnamese put an end to the genocide in neighboring Cambodia by invading and “liberating” it. Saddam and company, meanwhile, engaged in genocide.

6

Donald Johnson 05.19.04 at 9:08 pm

Hitchens and his former friend Tariq Ali had a debate on “Democracy Now” some months back where they both said something like this about the VC. If my memory is correct, they also said the same about the FLN in the French/Algerian war. Having read “A Savage War of Peace”, I think both sides in Iraq have a long way to go before they reach the scale of savagery in that conflict. (Though qualitatively rather than quantitatively, there are similarities.)

With Hitchens I think there’s a component of anti-religious fanaticism involved and I thought that about him even in the days when I liked him. His hero Orwell would be the first to say that an atrocity is an atrocity, but for Hitchens an atrocity committed by an “Islamo-fascist” or by some fanatical Orthodox Christian fighting on the White side in the Russian civil war is infinitely worse than an atrocity committed by secular leftwing nationalists or communists. (Though I think there was a religious component to the Algerian war.) I’m glad Hitchens isn’t going the full David Horowitz route and saying that the US was right to fight in Vietnam, but on the other hand, I don’t think I’d agree with his reasoning.

Just so as not to be misunderstood, I’m pretty far to the left myself and think the French in Algeria and the Americans in Vietnam were wrong, but this romanticizing of ruthless guerilla movements was a disease that seems to have infected people on all parts of the political spectrum during the 20th Century. Each part of the political spectrum had its favorite “freedom fighters, whether it’s Afghan mujahadeen, Savimbi’s UNITA movement, the Nicaraguan contras, the Algerian FLN, the NLF in Vietnam, etc…. The one thing they all had in common was a willingness to commit horrific atrocities to the deafening cheers of their western supporters.

7

Donald Johnson 05.19.04 at 9:22 pm

I just took a peek at Matt Y and Brad DeLong and want to distance myself from their viewpoint. I don’t have a problem ranting about the totalitarian North Vietnamese government, but any fair-minded American ought to balance that with a comment or two about their imperialist war criminal counterparts in Washington.

8

Steve Carr 05.19.04 at 10:07 pm

Hear, hear, Daniel. Hitchens has been flogging this horse for quite some time now, and it has gotten no more convincing. In a recent Slate piece — http://slate.msn.com/id/2098642
he wrote the following:

“For one thing, Vietnam even at its most Stalinist never invaded and occupied neighboring countries (or not until it took on the Khmer Rouge), never employed weapons of genocide inside or outside its own borders, and never sponsored gangs of roving nihilist terrorists.”

Considering that North Vietnam invaded Laos in 1958 and then played a crucial role in the Pathet Lao’s victory over the Laotian government, occupied chunks of Cambodia and then — in the wake of Sihanouk’s fall — essentially took over the country’s whole northeast (which became a staging ground for the Khmer Rouge), and trained and funded the Khmer Rouge until breaking with them in 1973, Hitchens’ history has, at the very least, a few omissions. This is to say nothing of the 5,000 prisoners murdered after the North Vietnamese took over Hue, etc.

So, no, jdw, he doesn’t vaguely have a point.

9

Gary Farber 05.19.04 at 11:00 pm

Too bad John McCain wasn’t available for comment.

10

Donald Johnson 05.19.04 at 11:13 pm

The North Vietnamese relationship with the Khmer Rouge is somewhat less shameful than the US relationship with Saddam Hussein. They supported the Khmer Rouge up until 1973, which is when they became more ruthless and also paranoid about the Vietnamese, who were urging them to negotiate with Lon Nol. (The US program to turn the Cambodian countryside into a moonscape reached its peak then, which was a great recruiting tool for the KR.) Ultimately the North Vietnamese overthrew their proteges, whereupon the US continued to recognize the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate government of Cambodia. This was because of our strict adherence to international law and our abhorence of governments that invade and occupy other countries.

The US enthusiastically supported Saddam when he was at his most aggressive to his neighbors (launching the Iran/Iraq war) and most genocidal towards Iraqi citizens. We turned against him when he got a little out of line, but maintained the high death rate of Iraqi civilians with the sanctions regime and held him entirely responsible for the deaths when we weren’t minimizing their number.

Hitchens is a jerk, but if you combine his writings with those of rightwing critics still immune to his charms you can piece together something approaching the truth, which of course is embarrassing to both sides.

11

Scott Martens 05.19.04 at 11:32 pm

Yeah, I’m inclined to find bitching about Vietnamese communism retroactively a bit weird too. I mean, I can’t see any rational way to credibly support Bush on Iraq and condemn Vietnam for the invasion of Cambodia.

But Hitch is definitely off his medication. To the best of my knowledge, Al Qaeda does not operate detention facilities and never has. The Taliban did, I imagine, but the two are not quite the same thing. And, while it might be fair to claim that Vietnam has not been, by comparison to other revolutionary ruling parties in the developing world, all that bad, this “civilised foe” thing is just plain weird. The VC attached grenades to orphaned children and sent them off towards GIs, forcing them to shoot toddlers. I’d say torture and suicide bombing are fairly civilised by comparison.

12

Sebastian holsclaw 05.19.04 at 11:41 pm

Wow, the US is to Iraq as Vietnam was to Cambodia. Repeated multiple times by multiple people. I wouldn’t have even attributed that one to ANSWER.

Wow!

Dare I hope it is one person with multiple names?

Scott, Donald, Steve, and Peter are you all the same person? Wow.

“war nobody really wants to fight.”

At least we finally know the truth about “this war now” Daniel.

13

st 05.19.04 at 11:54 pm

Er, Sebastian? I think it is quite fair (and not at all contradictory of DSquared’s “anti-this war now” argument) to say that nobody, including the most vehement of war supporters, wanted to be fighting a drawn-out guerrilla war over a year after invasion where we are backpedaling from entire cities, no credible government has formed or been formed by us or anyone else, and sexual humiliation and beheading have entered the tactical arsenals of the combatants.

Not to speak for the pro-war crowd, of course. Don’t want to put words in your mouth.

14

Neil 05.20.04 at 12:13 am

The point Hitchen’s is making is that there is a difference between Saddam’s regime and the North Vietnamese. For all the communists faults they turned out to be more nationalist than communist (a common anti-war theme) and of a relatively moderate sort (compared to Nth Korea) which is gradually becomming more like a liberal democacy (all unlike Nth Korea and Saddam).

One does not have to agree with Hitchens on everything to realise that he has a point. But it seems that’s the way this sort of debate has gone – total agreement or disagreement with no place inbetween. That used to be symptomatic of just the far right.

15

Giles 05.20.04 at 1:05 am

“including the most vehement of war supporters, wanted to be fighting a drawn-out guerrilla war over a year after invasion”

Not true st – there was and still a sizeable set of pro war honey trappers out there.

16

q 05.20.04 at 4:03 am

H: _my quarrel with the media would be different from yours_

A quarrel with the media, or the messenger? A simple but sometimes overlooked difference between combatants is the location of the conflict. Iraqis, Vietnamese were fighting on their own doorstep. US is fighting abroad, a conflict which many a neutral observer will regard as imperialist. Many neutral observers will find statements from the US political leadership inconsistent.

H: _The media cliche about the war is that it‘s like Vietnam_

Yes, indeed, the media are reflecting the opinion of many people. Those who wish to spoil debate will sometimes resort to a tactic where even the most basic facts have to be proved again and again. BMS: “Bad Memory Syndrome”.

17

liberal japonicus 05.20.04 at 4:15 am

Did anyone read the cite for Heinl’s article? I was most interested in the comparative problems of the 4 services in desertion, recruting and re-enlistment. In light of the possible gaming of reenlistment rates (see Kevin Drum’s post on this at http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2004_05/003963.php), I wonder what is really going on.

Reading this, I now wonder if the fact that we have a volunteer military versus the fact that France and Germany utilizes conscription was one of the factors for the split on Iraq. I realize that the force that wold have been supplied (like the British one) would have been drawn from volunteers, but having a volunteer military seems to have been, at least to the neo-cons, like having a shiny toy, but not being allowed to play with it.

18

q 05.20.04 at 5:27 am

H: _What you‘re seeing now is a pale shadow of what would have happened to Iraq if it had been allowed to implode._

A new (to me anyway) argument for the war. Apparantly, Iraq needed to be saved from the effect of UN sanctions. If we had not started the war, Iran and Saudi Arabia would have invaded. Iraq would look like Rwanda and Somalia. Martian UFOs would have landed in Iraq and used up all the oil refueling. Read below:

HITCHENS: _” … not just a rogue state run by a psychopathic sadist, but also a failed state, Bianca. It was falling apart into sectarian warfare. It was falling into misery and destitution because of the sanctions administered by a corrupt and cynical United Nations. And these divisions were being played upon in the nastiest possible way by the Baath Party. And they were neighboring countries interested in making their own interventions, indeed, as some Saudi and Iranian forces are indeed now doing. All that was going to happen if we let it run. And it would have been infinitely worse if there wasn‘t a coalition force on hand to prevent it. What you‘re seeing now is a pale shadow of what would have happened to Iraq if it had been allowed to implode. And we‘d now be having an inquest into look, who let this happen in Iraq? Why did we let it go the way of Rwanda and Somalia?”_

(By the way, did you spot the deliberate mistake?)

19

dsquared 05.20.04 at 6:59 am

Also, the Vietnamese put an end to the genocide in neighboring Cambodia by invading and “liberating” it. Saddam and company, meanwhile, engaged in genocide.

Have you ever wondered why there are so many excellent Vietnamese restaurants in Australia, Peter? Or for that matter, so few Hmong left in Vietnam. I have a lot of time for 1990s Vietnam as a developmental state, but anyone trying to paint 1970s/80s Vietnam as basically a force for good, really has to come up with a pretty good explanation of why so bloody many Vietnamese regarded it as a worse bet than small open boats on the South China Sea.

Sebastian: st is right. The “war nobody wants to fight” refers to the current (using a phrase I believe to have been rehabilitated) quagmire. The current quagmire is a direct consequence of poor battle selection by those people who chose “That War Then” over the possibility of a better war later.

20

Alison 05.20.04 at 11:18 am

anyone trying to paint 1970s/80s Vietnam as basically a force for good, really has to come up with a pretty good explanation of why so bloody many Vietnamese regarded it as a worse bet than small open boats on the South China Sea.

I’m a bit nervous to say anything about this, but I have always assumed it was because the economy was wrecked by the trade boycott, so they were terribly poor.

21

MFB 05.20.04 at 11:31 am

In addition, South Vietnam was devastated by war and couldn’t feed itself — and after 1975 wasn’t receiving any foreign food aid. (Same as Cambodia, of course.) Hence, plenty of reason to flee.

Plus, a lot of people had supported the Government of South Vietnam, and somehow the Communists didn’t want to treat them tremendously well. (And, I suspect, used this accusation against anybody they didn’t like.) So life in ex-South Vietnam was hard all over.

22

W. Kiernan 05.20.04 at 11:53 am

Contrary to some of the posts above, Vietnam did not launch an unprovoked attack against Cambodia in 1978. From Ben Kiernan’s The Pol Pot Regime:

“…Cambodian forces made raids into the Vietnamese provinces of Kien Giang and An Giang on March 15-18 and 25-28 1977…launched concerted attacks on Vietnamese Army posts and border villages in An Giang between April 30 and May 19, killing 222 civilians, and shelled Chau Doc, the provincial capital, on May 17 (1977)… from September 24 (1977) onwards Cambodian forces totaling about four divisions had launched continuous attacks along the entire border of Tay Ninh proviince, and … over a thousand civilians had been killed or wounded in this area between September 24 and late November (1977)… On the night of 24 September (1977) elements of the reconstituted 3rd Eastern Zone Division… crossed into Tay Ninh province and massacred nearly three hundred civilians … Taken by surprise, Vietnamese units only recaptured the area a week later, by which time they were also cconfronting the 5th Eastern and 18th Central Zone Divisions…” It wasn’t until December 1978, after twenty months of repeated Cambodian incursions into Vietnamese territory, that Vietnam finally launched their all-out counter-invasion which finally drove the Khmer Rouge government out of Phnom Penh.

The number one complaint against Noam Chomsky concerns his rather tentative defense of the Khmer Rouge government, presented in 1976 and 1977 when Cambodia was almost perfectly isolated from the outside world, so no one outside had any way of knowing the depth of the Khmer Rouge’s brutality. However, after the Vietnamese ousted Pol Pot and the dimensions of the Khmer Rouge’s genocide (15 to 30 percent of the Cambodian population murdered outright) became known to the outside world a horrified Chomsky withdrew his support… while the U.S. government began secretly to subsidize the Khmer Rouge remnants in exile, and our diplomats publicly insisted that the Heng Samrin government which had been installed in Cambodia by the Vietnamese was not the legitimate government of Cambodia, but instead we would only recognize the Khmer Rouge in that capacity.

23

q 05.20.04 at 12:25 pm

Hitchens relates the conduct of the enemy (“a very civilized foe”) in the Vietnam war (1965-75?) to the current enemy (“evil and ruthlessness”). I don’t see that Vietnam after 1975 fits in.

Hitchens appears to be trying to say that if the current enemy were “civilised” he would understand if the media were less than enthusiatic, but because the enemy are so “ruthless” and “evil”, it is strange that the media are not wholeheartedly behind the war effort, by which I interpret as suppressing bad news and criticism.

Can anyone quantify “civilized foe” vs “evil and ruthlessness”?

The Vietnamese tried to remove the West from SE Asia, the Muslims are trying to remove the West from the Middle East. Not much difference there.

Hitchens provides some criteria for someone who wants to be a civilised foe, and gain some sympathy:
-do not use of weapons of mass destruction
-don’t target civilians
-do use women as fighters and organizers
-do not torture
-do not mass murder

It should be a simple matter to determine which combatants today and in previous years meet these 5 criteria from CH. (The third one puzzles me.)

24

Petra Maurice 05.20.04 at 1:42 pm

A lot of use want to dump onto Hitchens. Like shooting fish in a barrel, I think. I’d rather say my take at Heinl’s piece, which I was curious to read. My reaction: underwhelment.

Let’s leave the style – which contains such amusing if dated phrases as “kinky California”. It sounds like a good description of the U.S. Army circa 1971. However, it does not address why it came to pass. There’s a lot of whinging about insubordinate soldiers (which are bad) but no analysis as to why they prosper. (Generally, they don’t.) Nor is there any inquiry into why fragging was almost wholly an American thing. (Other troops in the field like South Koreans or even draftee Australians never got up to the same hijinks.)

It also contained one mother-of-all-non-sequiturs:

Offcers,” says a recently retired senior admiral, “do not stand up for what they believe. The older enlisted men are really horrified.”

Lieutenant William L. Calley, Jr., an ex-company clerk, was a platoon leader who never even learned to read a map. His credentials for a commission were derisory; he was no more officer material than any Pfc. in his platoon. Yet the Army had to take him because no one else was available. Commenting on the Calley conviction, a colonel at Ft. Benning said, “We have at least two or three thousand more Calleys in the Army just waiting for the next calamity.”

Oddly enough, I think you could not fault Lt. Calley on lack of zeal or belief. You can fault him on many other things, but not on the lack of those quantities.

25

Peter K. 05.20.04 at 3:49 pm

1. The anti-war Left has been comparing Gulf War II to the Vietnam War and the mainstream has picked up on this. Hitchens merely pointed out one of the many things wrong with this analogy and anti-Hitch folks act like he started the whole thing.

2. As Chomsky has pointed out repeatedly, America didn’t lose the Vietnam War. It destroyed Vietnam, partyly by dropping more bombs on it than were dropped during WWII. Everyone knows the record.

Everyone should know the following, whether they think taking out Saddam was a good idea or not: Saddam did commit genocide. The Vietnamese, after fighting the Japanese, the French and the Americans did invade Cambodia and put an end to the genocide there.

26

daniel elstein 05.20.04 at 5:05 pm

I have as much contempt for Hitchens as the next guy, but he does have a point here. Remember the following pieces of information:

1. There is a distinction between the Vietcong and the North Vietmanese army. The Vietcong (South Vietnamese communists – the NLF) were overwhelmingly the victims of mass murder and torture by the US-supported Diem regime. The fact that they were so badly weakened by this oppression allowed the much less pleasant North Vietnamese to take over the South after the war. So you can’t blame what happened to the Boat People (for instance) on the Vietcong.

2. So far as torture and the murder of civilians goes, the US started it. The CIA were operating along the border in the years leading up to the war, and committed numerous atrocities. The story I remember (which was later related by ex-CIA guys) was that the Americans would go into a village and come over really friendly and build a lovely school for the kids. Then they’d then blow up the school, killing the kids, and blame it on the communists. That’s how the CIA did counterinsurgency. Faced with that kind of behaviour, is it any wonder that that the communists took to using dirty tactics themselves?

27

Ed Zeppelin 05.20.04 at 5:29 pm

And the Iraq-Vietnam comparisons are invariably overdrawn; the chief similarity seems to be that both are a mess.

And I would suggest that the chief similarity seems instead to be the fact that both conflicts can be described as “unwinnable.”

28

Gareth 05.20.04 at 7:08 pm

It just isn’t true that, once the facts became known, a “horrified Chomsky withdrew his support.” Beyond the Cataclysm, which compared the Khmer Rouge to the French Resistance, was published in 1979, and Chomsky and Herman defended their chapter on Cambodia in Manufacturing Consent, which was reissued in 2001 with yet more apologetics.

29

Donald Johnson 05.20.04 at 8:31 pm

Gareth, you shouldn’t make misleading statements about books in front of people who have read them, because, you know, it doesn’t work. Well, maybe it works with unsuspecting people who haven’t read the books, and I suppose that’s the point. Incidentally, it’s “After the Cataclysm”.

Chomsky said that the Khmer Rouge had committed gruesome atrocities from the very beginning–in 1977 (his NATION article) and 1979 (PEHR II) he said the evidence was incomplete on the scale and he said it could be anywhere from thousands (the French Resistance comparison) to the full-fledged genocide that people were talking about. It’s clear from reading him that he was skeptical of the genocide, but he left it open as a possibility. Even then, he explicitly compared Cambodia under Pol Pot to what was happening in East Timor–he seemed to lean towards the notion that the absolute numbers of deaths in both places were probably comparable. That would be 100-200,000. In fact, the per-capita death toll was comparable, but Cambodia has ten times the number of people and 5-10 times the death toll of East Timor.

After the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge and the facts came out, Chomsky started using the term “genocide” to describe Cambodia. When you say he defended his PEHR book, that’s true, but misleading. He’s saying that he took no firm stand whatsoever on what was happening in Cambodia in PEHR, which is true. I wish he’d be more forthcoming and admit that he was inclined to underestimate the likely death toll, but that’s different from your criticism because I’m criticizing him on positions he actually took.

And Sebastian–

Gee whiz, I thought my cry for moral consistency across the political spectrum, citing embarrassing examples and bashing left and right alike for their hypocrisy would either prick people’s consciences or (one would like to think) appear so obvious as to be banal. My position is the opposite of ANSWER’s–I would say that you and they are soulmates under the skin, differing only on the minor matter of which atrocities you choose to rationalize.

30

jdw 05.20.04 at 9:07 pm

_It just isn’t true that, once the facts became known, a “horrified Chomsky withdrew his support.” (etc)_

Didn’t the Hitch at one point spill much ink defending Chomsky from exactly these charges? My mind is totally being blown.

31

nick 05.21.04 at 10:27 am

32

Gary Farber 05.21.04 at 11:47 am

“I’m a bit nervous to say anything about this, but I have always assumed it was because the economy was wrecked by the trade boycott, so they were terribly poor.”

To be sure, the re-education camps had nothing to do with it.

“There is a distinction between the Vietcong and the North Vietmanese army. The Vietcong (South Vietnamese communists – the NLF) were overwhelmingly the victims of mass murder and torture by the US-supported Diem regime. The fact that they were so badly weakened by this oppression allowed the much less pleasant North Vietnamese to take over the South after the war.”

This is plausible if this were 1974. But anyone who’s read any of the countless detailed histories of the war of the last thirty years knows that this is merely the propaganda put out at the time; the “Viet Cong” (an American name; they were a revival of the Viet Minh) were completely the creation of North Vietnam, completely under the control and direction of the North, were simply the untrusted tools of the North, and in many cases subsequent to the war, were executed as insufficiently trustworthy. The idea that one or the other was “more pleasant” is risible.

None of which justified the American war, of course.

33

megapotamus 05.21.04 at 5:23 pm

It has long seemed to me that everyone, left right and center, had forgotten the consequences of our retreat from Viet Nam. For those who count so many stains on American honor, this is a true one. Not so much for the personnel withdrawal from the field, Vietnamization of the conflict was actually pretty successful, but the loss of the media war on Tet and then the abandonment of even funding for the South was an abject display of dishonor as was the abandonment of the Shia’s at the end of Desert Storm. To redress this is why I support the war today.

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