The Things Civilians Don't Understand About War
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
Today, American troops near the southern city of Kandahar in Afghanistan peppered a bus with gunfire that left at least four civilians dead and 18 wounded, images of the casualties and the shot-up bus appear on various news outlets.
Last week, millions looked at a leaked, grainy video of an airstrike from a helicopter gunship in Baghdad three years ago. Twelve people died in that incident, some armed, some not, two of them reporters.
Those of us back home are shocked and disturbed by these images in part because pictures like these are so unusual, not because incidents like these are so unusual but because wars in Iraq and Afghanistan sometimes seem as if they're being conducted out of sight.
Today, we talk with a former infantry officer and with an expert on the rules of combat about what the rest of us don't understand about war, about the context.
If you've experienced war, in or out of uniform, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. What don't we understand about war?
Later in the program, Clarence Page joins us on the Opinion Page to talk about the Confederate history proclamation in Virginia and the second Civil War. But first, retired Army officer Matt Gallagher joins us here in Studio 3A. He's also the author of "Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War." Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. MATT GALLAGHER (Former Captain, United States Army; Author "Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War"): Thank you. Thanks for having me.
CONAN: And you served in Iraq. I know you've seen the Apache video. What do you see?
Mr. GALLAGHER: I have. You know, at first glance, it looks terrible. The fact that WikiLeaks labeled it collateral murder certainly doesn't help. But being there, having been in Iraq as an armored cavalry officer on the ground I wasn't a pilot but still, the video begs the question of context. You know, why were the pilots flying in that area? They were clearly looking for something. What were the current rules of engagement on the ground?
You know, Wikileaks does a great jobs of marking the two journalists, but they don't point out the fact that they're down - the insurgent with an AK-47 or the one with an RPG launcher.
You know, those are the questions that I have the benefit of looking for, given my experience, but an average civilian doesn't. You know, they just see the video itself.
CONAN: And as you say, it looks terrible. Somebody, well, I got an email from somebody: How could people do that?
Mr. GALLAGHER: That yes, and in by itself, in that vacuum, it is, but unfortunately, you know, war, terrible things occur in war. That doesn't necessarily make it a war crime. And, you know, I'm not going to personally, I'm not going to rush to judgment until the entire report is given the context that it deserves.
CONAN: Also with us here in the studio is Gary Solis Solis, excuse me. He teaches law at Georgetown University in Washington. He wrote the book "The Law of Armed Conflict: International Humanitarian Law in War," and thanks very much for joining us today.
Mr. GARY SOLIS (Author "The Law of Armed Conflict: International Humanitarian Law in War"; Adjunct Professor of Law, Georgetown University): My pleasure.
CONAN: And I know you've seen the video, too. What do you see?
Mr. SOLIS: Well, I see much the same thing that Matt saw. And what Americans, many Americans at home watching it on television don't realize is that it's what combatants see if not every day, frequently, not out of the ordinary. Perhaps their language, the language of the pilots and the gunners, was unprofessional, but you often hear unprofessional language in combat situations.
CONAN: Let's go back to you for a moment, Matt. Did that language there's a moment where one of the wounded reporters, as it turns out, is struggling on the ground, and they say you hear the pilot say: Just pick up a weapon. Just pick up a weapon. And then the implication, then we can shoot you.
Mr. GALLAGHER: Absolutely, and it sounds cavalier, and it was, in fact, cavalier, but that language is soldier language. That's a survival skill. I certainly doubt that when those or I certainly don't doubt that when those pilots went home and slept on it that night, they weren't troubled by it. But at the same time, you know, asking them to pick up a weapon, they're following rules of engagement. That's not murder. If he's waiting for that weapon to be picked up, he's waiting to follow the ROE.
CONAN: The ROE, the rules of engagement, an acronym that's likely to come up a lot in this conversation. And Gary Solis, the ROE, does that absolve people from war crimes? It's the ROE. We were following the rules.
Mr. SOLIS: Absolutely not. ROE is a term that's used very expansively and very often incorrectly, and it's misunderstood by many who are not familiar with its proper usage. ROE doesn't explain what constitutes a war crime or what doesn't.
What the law of armed conflict says through case law, not in the Geneva Conventions or the additional protocols, is that if those pilots and those gunners honestly and reasonably believed that those individuals constituted a threat to American forces, they could lawfully target them. So it would be extremely difficult to convict anyone of a war crime based upon the actions that we saw in that video.
CONAN: As you know, there was a review of that incident, and the powers that be came to the conclusion that the pilots in that situation had acted within their instructions, and there was nothing to review.
Mr. SOLIS: And in fact in my viewing, several viewings of the video, I saw nothing on which I would be willing to bring charges.
CONAN: And Matt Gallagher, is this the difference between people who have experience watching such incidents and experience in such situations and the rest of us who see this, well, it's so unusual to see this.
Mr. GALLAGHER: I think it offers a glimpse into that gulf between veterans and the society that veterans fight for. You know, there's far more differences than just that. But there is, you know, a voyeuristic feel to this video of that civilians seem to be getting from it of, oh, this is just what it's like to be there.
You're not feeling what those pilots are feeling. You're not aware of who they're trying to protect. You know, there were American ground forces nearby, and that's why those Apache helicopters were in the area, to provide air cover and possibly protect and save, you know, the American lives on the ground.
CONAN: Nobody seemed to be threatening them. Nobody was pointing a weapon at the a guy had an RPG. And RPG is a threat to a helicopter, but wasn't aiming it at it.
Mr. GALLAGHER: That is correct. At the same time, you know, who's to say that that guy with the RPG was doing five minutes before. You know, what is the context of why the helicopter had followed those particular people there, and had they posed a threat in the past, clearly they're going to pose a threat in the future, as well.
CONAN: We'll get some listeners in on the conversation. 800-989-8255 is the phone number. The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Our guests again are Matt Gallagher, you just heard, author of "Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War," former captain in the U.S. Army; and Gary Solis, who's an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown and author of "The Law of Armed Conflict." We'll start with Emanuel(ph), Emanuel with us from Athens in Ohio.
EMANUEL (Caller): Yes. I was wanting to comment on the overall experience of going to combat. I did three tours in Iraq with Third Infantry Division, and I can tell you that my perception of war, being in a peacetime army, changed drastically once I was deployed. And living that every day, seeing your comrades fall, seeing guys that are just as strong or if not stronger than you fall and come to a gruesome demise, it puts you in a different mindset: paranoia, stress, you know, all those things take effect.
And basically from what I understand, those helicopter pilots were acting in accordance with their conscience, which is, at the end of the day, what drives the rules of war and everything else. You know, I don't think they should lose any sleep at night. I think the real crime is us Monday morning quarterbacking it. And you know, those pilots now know they're part of a big controversy. And if there was a question of whether they were right or wrong, now it feels like society thinks they were wrong. However, at the time, they did what they felt was right, and now it's coming into question.
CONAN: Monday morning quarterbacking, and I can understand the feeling, Emanuel. Nevertheless, all of us get Monday morning quarterbacked in all of our jobs. And if I make a mistake on the radio program, people are going to call me on that. And if you in whatever job you've got now, people are going to call you on that. These people are using lethal force in the name of their country. Their actions should be examined.
EMANUEL: Yes, they should be. The incident should be reported on the (technical difficulties) should be questioned. Now with the spread of the video, that makes it a little more personal and private. That draws out you know, that's not a Lieutenant Calley that had been convicted of something gruesome.
If charges were stemmed from what was viewed on that tape, and then they became war criminals, yes, by all means, put it on the media, you know, let everybody see what they did, you know, make an example out of them.
So far, I think it's a little early to judge what they did in that particular (technical difficulties) wrong and to air that footage out for the public to make that decision in the court of common opinion.
CONAN: And I hear what you're saying, Emanuel, but a lot of people believe, and probably correctly, charges would never have been brought against William Calley had not the story been exposed by a reporter in the press and it would've been hushed up, and nothing would have been made of it. So there are two sides of that. But Gary Solis.
Mr. SOLIS: Well, I'm a retired professor at West Point, and as I point out to cadets and I return there frequently to teach the CNN factor, no offense NPR...
Mr. SOLIS: The CNN factor is tremendous. And I remind cadets, based upon my own experience, two tours in Vietnam as a Marine Corps company commander, that anything you say or do, presume it's going to be seen on television that night and act accordingly. Remember where you are and who you are and what your job is and what the rules are.
CONAN: Emanuel, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.
EMANUEL: Thank you, I appreciate the time.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to Eli(ph), Eli with us from Fort Myers in Florida.
ELI (Caller): Yeah, I had a quick point to make. I actually served in the Israeli military, and regarding ROE, I think that it's a very challenging issue because you, on the militaristic side, are really the only side that is required to follow the rules of engagement. And inherently, and I think the situation is very much the same in Iraq, the other side is not only not following these rules, but they aren't interested in these rules, as well.
So when you go into conflicts, you are actually more at risk than your enemy, and it's all because you're choosing to following this ROE. I had (technical difficulties) video, and I don't understand exactly what occurred there. I'm going to check it out later today.
ELI: But I can see where that would be an issue.
CONAN: Matt Gallagher?
Mr. GALLAGHER: I understand totally what he's saying. We used to call that getting hamstrung. At the same time, that's what you have to do as a counterinsurgency. To be successful in a counterinsurgency, you have to hold yourself to different standards than the insurgency itself, thereby endearing yourself to the local population and starting from there.
ELI: And I think one thing that people don't understand is that when you hold yourself to a different set of standards, your life is actually on the line. It's not a simple bargain. You're actually choosing to rise to a different level, and you're putting yourself at risk for that.
Mr. GALLAGHER: Absolutely, and it ebbs and flows on a daily basis. It sounds like you experienced it. I experienced the same thing. And you know, in the moment of the time, a lot of that gets lost.
CONAN: Thanks very much, Eli. We're talking about the experience of war and what we don't, we civilians, don't understand about it. Well, we look at videos like the Apache gunship video and say: How can people do this? Well, maybe there's a context we don't understand.
Give us a call if you've been in that situation in uniform or out, 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
For most of us, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan play out in soundbites on the radio, maybe the occasional short video on TV or the Web. And an abstract like the rules of engagement means a very different thing when you're on the ground in a war zone. Today, what we don't understand about combat.
If you've experienced war as a member of the armed forces or as a civilian, what don't the rest of us understand? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can join the conversation also on our Web site. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Our guests are former Army Captain Matt Gallagher, who wrote a book about his experiences in Iraq called "Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War." And Gary Solis is with us, too. He teaches law at Georgetown and wrote "The Law of Armed Conflict: International Humanitarian Law in War." And Gary Solis, give us some wider context. Are incidents like this, other wars, past conflicts, are these unusual?
Mr. SOLIS: Not only are they not unusual, they are more common than civilian observers would probably care to know. You are constantly in an environment where you don't know who's coming, what's coming, who's going to be the means of your death or what the manner may be, and you learn to react, and you react in violent ways.
And that's what you know, one doesn't want to say civilians don't understand, but that's what civilians don't understand, that you are constantly on a knife edge, knowing that the next car in Iraq and Afghanistan, a rock, a bump in the road, the next person who comes by could be the means of your death.
And it requires you to impose a certain distance between yourself and your surroundings. And you are left with you and the men and women around you that you depend on, that you live with, that you eat with, sleep with, die with.
So there is a in combat, there is a combat is a situation which, it sounds so well, it can't be explained. When I came back from Vietnam people say, well, what's it like to be in combat? And I would try to tell them. In 30 seconds, I'd see their eyes begin to glaze over.
So now, if I'm asked, I just make up stuff because it's so unique a situation and it requires you to act so differently than you would in any other context that it's hard to impart the experience of what it's like.
But what I can say is that what we saw on that Apache video is not unusual. And even more so for someone like Matt, whos on the ground and doesn't have the physical distance of a helicopter gunship, it's even more immediate and stark.
CONAN: Matt, youre nodding your head.
Mr. GALLAGHER: He absolutely nailed it. You know, you get these survival instincts over there in Iraq or Vietnam, what have you, and then you come back, but you still have those instincts. You may not be there, but that war will always be with you. And you get used to as he hinted at, when civilians want these 30-second soundbites, you just adapt and get used to just giving those soundbites because trying to actually explain it to anybody other than, like, your closest family members is next to impossible.
And I think part of that, too, is, you know, something like one percent, less than one percent of the American population serves in today's military, which greatly limits the amount of family members or friends that have it.
So it gets back to, like, this voyeuristic feel of the greater American society wanting to know what's going on over there, and then when they get this little, brief, you know, clip that can hold their attention span, they're all over it. And the fact that it's labeled collateral murder just adds to that, you know, Hollywood element that they're going for, but it totally lacks the context of the situation and what we lived and breathed and sweated and bled for for, you know, 15 months or what have you.
CONAN: Let's get Eddie(ph) on the line, Eddie with us from Muskogee, Oklahoma.
EDDIE (Caller): Yes, sir, thank you for taking my call. I enjoy your program.
CONAN: Thank you.
EDDIE: I'm an eight-year veteran in the United States Army, 82nd Airborne, and I had I was in the platoon that was half-destroyed. And I can tell you from experience - it hits the fan, the rules of engagement kind of are at a distance. You don't mentally think about it. You're in it for your life, and as your host was saying, you smell it, taste it, feel it for the rest of your life. And it's something you don't forget. And rules of engagement are a different aspect whenever you're in the middle of it.
CONAN: And where was this, Eddie?
EDDIE: Desert Storm.
CONAN: Yeah, and the abstract suddenly became less abstract.
EDDIE: I'm sorry...
CONAN: The rules of engagement, you're telling us, these instructions that you'd received prior to that situation, suddenly, well, they turned out to be malleable. They could change.
EDDIE: Whenever you're engaged, whenever you're in the middle of it, to have friendly fire or not to fire on local civilians or try to identify your target 100 percent before you take out your target, you don't think about that nearly as much whenever you're in the heat of it.
And a lot of things can be said. I've listened to some of the soundbites on this incident, and some of the things are definitely being taken out of context as far as what's happening at the moment. Those guys may have sounded like they were maybe not following the rules of engagement, but believe me, they probably had a lot of their fellow comrades just destroyed, literally. And their mindset is not on the Geneva Convention or rules of engagement at that moment. And I'm sorry they're being you know, that he's being charged with it. Thats...
CONAN: Nobody's being charged with anything. And as far as I know, the names of those pilots has not been made public. So far, that's not been part of it.
EDDIE: Oh, okay, all right.
CONAN: Thanks very much, Eddie, appreciate it.
EDDIE: Thank you, sir.
CONAN: And Gary Solis, let me ask you about an incident in Eddie's war. You talked about the CNN effect a moment ago. The highway of death, this was the last Iraqi troops fleeing Kuwait City with the loot of Iraq. They were taking school buses, ambulances, fire trucks, the contents of every five and dime that had not already been removed to Iraq, with them on the way out of Kuwait City. They're approaching a ridge, the Mutla Ridge, on their way to Iraq. There are also tanks and armored personnel carriers and various kinds of military equipment and that. And American civilians see that convoy, which is cut off by mines in front, mines in back and then machine guns back and forth and back and forth, and they say: How can you kill people who are helpless?
Mr. SOLIS: Well, in fact, the law of war, which is a topic that I teach, says that a combatant is a combatant is a combatant. If he or she puts down his weapon and then surrenders, then they are out of combat and may not be fired on.
But as long as they have not surrender or indicated a desire to surrender, they remain lawful targets, even if they don't have a gun in their hand, even if they're retreating, even if they're running away. Until they indicate a desire to surrender, they remain lawful targets, and that was the case in the so-called highway of death.
And if you have civilians who are intermingled with combatants, you do the best you can to aim at the combatants, knowing that inevitably, there will probably be civilians who are killed. But the law of war, sometimes called humanitarian law, allows you to kill civilians in such a situation.
But there is I don't think there is any combatant who purposely does that, certainly not lawfully. And I don't think any combatant would want to do that.
CONAN: And let me ask Captain Gallagher a question.
Mr. GALLAGHER: Sure.
CONAN: The basic tactical maneuver of U.S. infantry, I think going back certainly before the second World War, is fire and maneuver. One part of your unit lays down a field of fire, fixing the force in front of you. The other side circles around the back and, if lucky, shoots them in the back.
Mr. GALLAGHER: Yeah, because that's why we want to win. That's proven successful over the years. You know, a personal anecdote of mine is we rolled straight into the middle of a firefight between the Iraqi army and the Sons of Iraq, the (unintelligible), who were supposed to be allies. You know, they were the kind of paramilitary security forces hired by the United States government to provide additional security. And they were firing at each other. We roll into the middle of it, and suddenly, you know, unknown civilians popped up into the middle of it and started firing at us, too.
So, as some of the callers have said, you know, the specific rules, nothing covers that kind of ambiguity. You just make the best that you can and, you know, conduct we conducted a move into contact right into penetrated right into the middle of it, and luckily, the firefight ended without anyone getting hurt seriously.
CONAN: On your side.
Mr. GALLAGHER: On our side, and the civilians, you know, must have dragged theirs away or, you know, the Iraqi army wasn't hurt, either. But, you know, luckily that day, you know, none of my men, they freaked out, and they handled themselves professionally and were able to maintain their bearing. That doesn't always happen. Things get way messier and more confusing than that, and that's just, you know, a personal story of mine.
CONAN: Let's quickly go to another phone call. This is Dan(ph), Dan with us from Rock Hill in South Carolina.
DAN (Caller): Yeah. I'd like to add something. I was captain in Vietnam, and I think it's quite oxymoronic to say that we have rules of engagement. I hear some of the other men at combat. When you are there and they're shooting at you, mortars are dropping all over the place, nobody's thinking. You're just thinking of your buddy or your chance to survive. If we're walking forward and we see a group of people, if we hesitate for a second, we were going to be dead. It is absolutely absurd to talk about rules of engagement.
I don't know where they ever came from. You put men in the hell of a situation killing other men, and then on top of that you try to put rules onto it to - what? Legitimize it? (technical difficulties) into born killers, you're giving us the authority to kill, and then you're telling us we have to obey certain rules. I've watched men die obeying those rules. I think it's absurd. This conversation is absurd.
You put men in harm's way. Their job is to get out of it. My job was to bring those men home. I brought them home. I didn't give a damn about rules of engagement. I brought my men home safely. I did what I had to do, whether I was throwing napalm on a village or not. My men were coming home. They were Americans.
CONAN: Gary Solis, he's talking about your war.
Mr. SOLIS: He is. And there's some legitimacy to what Dan has to say. On the other hand, as we mentioned before, there's a misunderstanding about what the rules of engagement are. They're not tactical instructions. They don't tell you how to take down a house or how to conduct an attack or who you can shoot and who you can't shoot, except that they say you may never purposely fire on civilians. You can't fire on mosques, et cetera, unless you're receiving fire from those mosques, unless you're receiving fire from those civilians. Once the mosque fires on you, it loses its protection. Any civilian who fires on you, you may return fire in self-defense. So Dan is correct that when you're in a firefight, you're not worried about rules of engagement.
The rules of engagement are merely basic instructions that tether the command to the shooter in the field, giving him some very broad instruction on when he - or may or may not fire. I do believe that it's dangerous say I'm going to bring my people home no matter what, because the enemy always has a vote in that equation. And so when you are in the field, you have a mission, and your mission is what takes priority, and your men and women come after that.
DAN: Not the case. My men - the men that were with me, we did our mission and I was to bring them home. I wasn't going to worry about who I killed to get them home, because everybody to me was the enemy. If they weren't the enemy, they shouldn't have been where they were. They shouldn't have been shooting.
CONAN: If they were shooting, they were enemy.
DAN: But how do I know in a village? Do you want me to go through a village and look at hut to hut, and then get myself ambushed? I went in a village, and we thought there was people there. We blew it away, because if not, we were going to get killed. The chances of us going through a village without any tree - it's never going to happen. We were going to get ambushed. These people knew how to blend in with the civilians. The difficulty that we're having in Iraq and Iran right now is the same scenario.
CONAN: We're not in Iran, but thank you, Dan, very...
DAN: Blending in with the civilians.
DAN: And they're killing all men because we - we have to worry about killing civilians. We're worried about collateral damage. They take advantage of that, and then they kill our people. And that's what they did in Vietnam, and that's what they're doing now. The Taliban hides in a church, hides in a hospital and we can't kill them. And all you're doing is killing Americans. The rules of engagement are absurd. If you want the Americans to win, you just simply tell them this is what they have to do, this is their mission, and let them go about it. Our people aren't heinous people. We're not going to go kill children, not a bit without cause. We...
CONAN: Unless they happen to be in the village in front of you and you don't care whether they're there or not.
DAN: Well, we do care, but we know they're there. Because we know that if we don't do it, we're going to get shot because the outfit before us went through there and didn't clean it up and got wasted.
CONAN: All right, Dan. This could go on for a long time, but thank you very much for the call. We appreciate it.
DAN: I'm just simply saying it's got to be real. Take a look what's happening in Afghanistan.
CONAN: That's what we're trying to do here. Thank you very, again, much, Dan. We appreciate it. We're talking about the experience of combat and getting some vivid contributions. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And Dan raises a point, Gary Solis.
Mr. SOLIS: He does.
CONAN: Is war legalized murder?
Mr. SOLIS: Oh, well, yes, it is. There is what's known as the combatant's privilege. If you're a lawful combatant, you're privileged to kill people, wound people and destroy objects without penalty of law. The problem, of course, is when you have what is often called unlawful combatants. You have civilians who take up arms and take a direct part in hostilities. And we should remember that once a civilian takes up arms - for example, what we saw in the videotape of the Apache - once a civilian takes up arms and takes a direct part on hostilities, he or she becomes a lawful target. And it doesn't matter if it's man, woman or child. If you're presented with someone with a weapon coming at you, you have the right under the law of the war, you have the duty to protect yourself and your fellow soldiers and Marines.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get one more caller in - Daniel with us from Elizabeth City in North Carolina.
DANIEL (Caller): Yes, sir. Thank you. What I really wanted to say, I've been listening to this go on back and forth, and I'm a former enlisted Marine that served as infantry in Operation Iraqi Freedom. And currently, I'm an undergraduate student of political science. What I wanted to kind of contribute was that when there's a clearly dominant power in any war, it typically forces the other side into guerilla tactics. What our elite does is more try to level the playing field. When that side has a dominant advantage, it kind of chokes them back up a bit, limits them back and gives the other side a chance to use their military instead of forcing them underground, forcing them to blend with civilians. Because if you can't possibly win, what other choice do you have?
CONAN: Matt Gallagher?
Capt. GALLAGHER: I think he raised an excellent point. And, you know, the emotion from Dan's call is very telling. And, you know, getting involved in these insurgencies is not like World War II or even Korea, where it's force on force and things are pretty crystal clear. Things get ambiguous. Things get messy and confusing. And, you know, I guess I'd asked that, you know, the American people, as they educate themselves on this, we use this in the future.
You know, when we're, as a nation, debating whether or not we're going to get involved in these failing states, you know, a lot of people smarter than me project Iraq and Afghanistan to be the kind of war that the 21st century will see more of. I mean, this is something that we're going to have to anticipate as a society and demand that our political leaders apply them accordingly, because it's never going to be crystal clear, and quelling guerilla wars takes a long time.
CONAN: And there will be ugly incidents and terrible things will happen.
Capt. GALLAGHER: Exactly.
CONAN: All right. Daniel, thanks very much for the call. And thank you to both our guests, Matt Gallagher, you just heard. His book is "Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War," former captain, U.S. Army. Gary Solis also with us, adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University. His book is "The Law of Armed Conflict: International Humanitarian Law in War." They both joined us here in Studio 3A.
When we come back, the Opinion Page and the second civil war. Clarence Page will join us. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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