Category Archives: Vietnam

Vietnam Retrospective, 2007

From Eat Your Heart Out, Ho Chi Minh: Or Things You Won’t Learn at Yale, by Tony Thompson (BookSurge, 2012), Kindle pp. 273-274:

Visiting Vietnam, even the Cu Chi Tunnels, is not like visiting Antietam or Verdun (and if you don’t know what those places represent, shame on you). The country is beautiful; there are few marks of war and the people, arguably the best looking on earth, are intelligent, friendly, and interesting. But there is another level, another dimension, to life in Vietnam. The country you see was paid for in blood.

Hanoi is not really about opera or folk art performances. Basically, Hanoi is about politics. Hanoi will always be to Saigon as Washington is to LA.

To understand the price ordinary Vietnamese paid for a Communist victory, visit the Fine Arts Museum in Hanoi. Despite the name, this is a museum of Vietnamese history and culture.

In a gallery containing examples of Vietnamese living quarters, there is one recreated room showing a truly Spartan lifestyle. The label on this exhibit read: “1975–1986 was a dramatic period and a profound lesson about the laws of social development.”

This is a profound understatement.

During that period after the end of the war, an individual without party connections was rationed to five meters of cloth per annum. The sandals worn by most people were made from old American tires and called “Ho Chi Minh Nikes.” Rice was also strictly rationed because of the failure of collective farming. Hunger was routine. People sat on wooden crates and looked into their empty rice bowls for entertainment because chairs and TV were only for cadres.

And this was the life of the politically acceptable. Hundreds of thousands of the politically tainted were put through reeducation camps. Many died in these camps. Millions had died in the war. There were reminders everywhere of those who were gone.

For years, Vietnam went nowhere spiritually or economically. It was one of the poorest countries on earth.

Over time, younger Vietnamese came to realize that such a life was not endurable. The older party leaders were sidelined. The younger ones cozied up to capitalism, just as in China.

Since 1993 [his last visit], Vietnam has gone through doi moi or economic openness. The boom that started in Saigon has spread to Hanoi. Much of the Hanoi Hilton prison, where John McCain was held, has been torn down for a real estate development. Corruption is rampant and is known as “lubricating oil.” There is a thriving stock exchange and over two hundred listed companies. GDP per capita has more than doubled since 1993. Many women have started tiny businesses.

Officially, Vietnam is a “market economy with a socialist orientation.” Just like Norway or The People’s Republic of Vermont.

The population of Vietnam is among the youngest on earth. They appear optimistic and have good reason to be. Writing and music and art have revived. Vietnam is rich in resources and well placed geographically. A promising future lies before it.

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Potage and Reportage in Vietnam, 1966

From Eat Your Heart Out, Ho Chi Minh: Or Things You Won’t Learn at Yale, by Tony Thompson (BookSurge, 2012), Kindle pp. 139-140:

Cubello took a bunk in a corner of the tent next to Bob Gaylord, a career soldier, former short order cook, and petty thief. Bob found or stole a one-burner kerosene stove and then began to filch food from the mess hall and cook it for us. So we all liked Gaylord despite personal hygiene deficiencies on his part, such as never changing his green army T-shirt.

Army food wasn’t bad as long as the army cooks had nothing to do with it. Gaylord mixed jars of stuffed green olives and anchovies—yes, from somewhere he got dozens of those small flat cans of anchovies—with a stolen gallon can of army beef stew and heated it to tepid on his stove. We craved salty food because of our constant sweating. With enough Tabasco, we thought the salty, fishy stew was delicious.

Time magazine claimed on several occasions that GIs in Vietnam had shrimp cocktail, steak, and ice cream on a regular basis. I suppose that you have to expect a certain level of bollocks from a mass audience magazine, as Time used to be. Time was printed on a useful quality of paper, though. In Vietnam, if you saw a soldier walking in a purposeful manner with a rolled-up copy of Time, you knew where he was going.

Time’s reporting of Vietnam had a more basic flaw. Time’s main local correspondent, Pham Xuan An, had remarkable sources of information. In The Making of a Quagmire, David Halberstam described An as the linchpin of his “small but first-rate intelligence network” of journalists. Halberstam thought that An “had the best military contacts in the country.”

In claiming this, Halberstam was certainly correct. An was a colonel, and later a general, in the North Vietnamese Army. An sent invaluable reports about American activities to North Vietnam via the Cu Chi tunnels.

A full description of An’s role is in The New Yorker of May 23, 2005.

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‘TheBus’ in Translation

The public bus system in Honolulu is not the only one in the U.S. whose official name is TheBus. (There’s also Rutland County, VT, Prince George’s County, MD, and Hernando County, FL.) It’s not even the only one that also calls itself DaBus (as Honolulu’s DaBus mobile app does). But I daresay it’s the only bus system that posts its obligatory Title VI notices in English, Tagalog, Ilokano, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Marshallese, Chuukese, and Vietnamese. How is the company name “TheBus” handled in each of these languages?

The English version of the notice begins “TheBus shall not discriminate …”  (from the 1964 Civil Rights Act).

Sentences in Philippine languages like Tagalog and Ilokano often begin with verbs, and nouns are always marked with a preceding article. So when each language starts its sentence with TheBus as topic, each requires its own article in front of the English noun, even though the English noun contains its own definite article. Thus, Tagalog Ang TheBus … and Ilokano Ti TheBus …. In each language, TheBus takes the article that marks singular common nouns, not the article used for singular personal names (Tagalog si, Ilokano ni).

Japanese nouns require no articles, and the Japanese version of the notice renders TheBus in katakana, as a foreign name, then follows it with the topic marker wa. Thus, the Japanese begins ザ・バスは … Za Basu wa …. (The raised dot is used to separate words in katakana.)

Neither Chinese nor Korean has the equivalent of katakana, so both languages begin their notices with the English name TheBus followed by their own term for ‘company’ (Chinese 公司 gongsi, Korean 회사 hoesa [= 會社]) to help clarify that TheBus is the name of a corporate entity. Thus, the Chinese begins TheBus 公司 … while the Korean begins TheBus 회사는 …. The Korean topic noun phrase ends in the topic marker 는 neun, equivalent to Japanese は wa.

Vietnamese nouns are not marked with articles or topic markers, so the Vietnamese notice simply begins with the English word TheBus, then continues with sẽ không … ‘shall not …’.

Marshallese nouns also lack articles or inflections, and so the Marshallese notice also begins with a direct borrowing of the English name and spelling of TheBus.

Chuukese is the only other language besides Japanese to parse TheBus into two words, translating English The- into Chuukese Ewe- ‘that, the’, a distal demonstrative that can be used to mark known referents (as I learned in a linguistic field methods course four decades ago), then combining it with borrowed Bus to yield EweBus.

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Gen. Maxwell Taylor’s Rise

From Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, by H. R. McMaster (HarperCollins, 2011), Kindle Loc. 227-39, 369-89:

Because the front line against Communism had not been drawn in Laos, South Vietnam would become the principal focus of U.S. policy in Southeast Asia. Under those circumstances Kennedy brought into his administration a man who would exert great influence over two presidents’ decisions to escalate American involvement in Vietnam.

Reeling from the wave of public criticism following the Bay of Pigs and aware of his increasingly troubled relationship with the JCS, Kennedy told his staff that he needed someone to be “my advisor to see that I am not making a dumb mistake as Commander in Chief.” To provide him with military advice and to coordinate the efforts of the White House staff, Defense Department, and intelligence agencies, the besieged president looked to former Army Chief of Staff Maxwell Davenport Taylor.

Max Taylor seemed the model of the soldier-statesman. Inspired by his Confederate grandfather’s Civil War tales, Taylor pursued a military career with great enthusiasm from an early age. When his sixth-grade teacher asked him to name his professional ambition, the young Taylor wrote “major general.” Twelve years later he graduated fourth in the West Point class of 1922. A talented linguist, Taylor later returned to the Military Academy to teach Spanish and French. During assignments in China and Japan, he became proficient in Japanese. It was, in part, his reputation as both a warrior and a scholar that made the general attractive to Kennedy.

The president privately acknowledged that Taylor’s responsibilities could easily have been performed by the Pentagon’s senior military men. He was not only dissatisfied with the Joint Chiefs’ advice but also frustrated by his inability to establish with them the kind of friendly rapport that he enjoyed with the rest of his staff and with many of his cabinet officials. To Kennedy generals and admirals were too formal, traditional, and unimaginative. Bundy confided to Taylor’s principal assistant that Kennedy “would never feel really secure” about the military until “young generals of his own generation in whom he has confidence” filled the top uniformed positions in the defense establishment. Bundy knew that it was important to Kennedy that the top military men be able to “conduct a conversation” with the president to give him a “feeling of confidence and reassurance.” Taylor would strive to satisfy the president’s need. Kennedy’s new personal adviser found the president “an amazingly attractive man—intelligent with a ready wit, personal charm, an ability to inspire loyalty in the people around him.” He soon cultivated a warm friendship with the president and his family.

Taylor knew that the Chiefs and the secretary of defense viewed him as a competing voice in national security issues. The retired general moved to head off potential animosities and assured his old friend Lemnitzer that he would be more of an ally than a source of competition. He told Lemnitzer that his “close personal relations with the President and his entourage” would help to ensure that the Chiefs’ advice reached the president.

When he arrived in Washington on April 22, Taylor’s first responsibility was to conduct an investigation of the decision to mount the Bay of Pigs invasion. Although he concluded that the Chiefs were “not directly responsible” for the misadventure, he criticized them for not warning the president more urgently of the dangers. When the administration sought military advice on narrow questions about the operation, the Chiefs gave competent answers but offered no overall assessment because “they hadn’t been asked.” Taylor concluded that relations between the commander in chief and the JCS had reached “crisis” level.

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Taylor & McNamara vs. Joint Chiefs

From Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, by H. R. McMaster (HarperCollins, 2011), Kindle Loc. 523-45:

On October 1, 1962, Taylor took over as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He found the Chiefs, still embittered over what they regarded as Kennedy’s unfair criticism in the wake of the Bay of Pigs, engaged in ongoing battles with civilian officials in the OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense]. The Chiefs saw Taylor’s selection as the imposition of a Kennedy man on an organization designed by law to give impartial military advice to the commander in chief.

Taylor quickly cultivated a warm relationship with the man whom many of the military officers in the Pentagon deeply resented. Taylor and McNamara found common ground in their belief in the need for administrative reform in the Pentagon, faith in the “flexible response” strategy, and utter devotion to their commander in chief. Like McNamara, Taylor concluded that the answer to problems of service rivalry and administrative inefficiency was increased centralization of power in the chairmanship and the OSD. Taylor had once lamented the indecisiveness of Eisenhower’s defense secretaries, and he lauded McNamara for tackling the tough problems of the department. The bond of respect between the two men was mutual. McNamara considered Taylor “one of the wisest, most intelligent military men ever to serve.” Much to the chagrin of the other Chiefs, Taylor and McNamara formed a partnership. Taylor’s overwhelming influence with the secretary of defense and the president made opposition to his views futile.

Historian Robert Divine observed that “Vietnam can only be understood in relation to the Cold War.” Indeed, Cold War crises during Kennedy’s first months as president shaped advisory relationships within his administration and influenced his foreign policy decisions until his assassination in November 1963. Already predisposed to distrust the senior military officers he had inherited from the Eisenhower administration, the Bay of Pigs incident and Laotian crisis motivated the president to seek a changing of the guard in the Pentagon. After the Bay of Pigs, an unsatisfactory diplomatic settlement in Laos, confrontation with the Kremlin over divided Berlin, and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s bullying rhetoric persuaded Kennedy that the United States needed to make its “power credible.” “Vietnam,” Kennedy concluded, “is the place.” Vietnam, however, loomed in the background while the New Frontiersmen confronted in the Caribbean what would become the best known of Kennedy’s Cold War crises.

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JFK vs. NSC and JSC

From Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, by H. R. McMaster (HarperCollins, 2011), Kindle Loc. 140-62:

The president’s personal style influenced the way he structured the White House staff to handle national security decision making. Having no experience as an executive, Kennedy was unaccustomed to operating at the head of a large staff organization. He regarded Eisenhower’s National Security Council (NSC) structure as cumbersome and unnecessary. Immediately after taking office, he eliminated the substructure of the NSC by abolishing its two major committees: the Planning Board and the Operations Coordinating Board (OCB). Kennedy resolved not to use the NSC except for the pro forma consultation required by the National Security Act of 1947. In place of the formal Eisenhower system, Kennedy relied on an ad hoc, collegial style of decision making in national security and foreign affairs. He formed task forces to analyze particular problems and met irregularly with an “inner club” of his most trusted advisers to discuss problems informally and weigh the advantages and disadvantages of potential courses of action.

Kennedy’s dismantling of the NSC apparatus diminished the voice of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) in national security matters. Under Eisenhower military officers connected with the JCS were assigned to the Planning Board and the OCB. Through these representatives, the JCS could place items important to the military on the NSC agenda. During NSC meetings Eisenhower considered differing opinions and made decisions with all the Chiefs in attendance. Kennedy’s structural changes, his practice of consulting frankly with only his closest advisers, and his use of larger forums to validate decisions already made would transcend his own administration and continue as a prominent feature of Vietnam decision making under Lyndon Johnson. Under the Kennedy-Johnson system, the Joint Chiefs lost the direct access to the president, and thus the real influence on decision making, that the Eisenhower NSC structure had provided.

Diminished JCS access to the president reflected Kennedy’s opinion of his senior military advisers. Kennedy and the young New Frontiersmen of his administration viewed the Eisenhower JCS with suspicion. Against the backdrop of Kennedy’s efforts to reform the Defense Department, and under the strain of foreign policy crises, a relationship of mutual distrust between senior military and civilian officials would develop. Two months after Kennedy assumed the presidency, tension between the New Frontiersmen and the Old Guard escalated over a foreign policy blunder in the Caribbean. The Old Guard in the Pentagon were soon relegated to a position of little influence.

The Bay of Pigs shattered the sense of euphoria and hopeful aspiration that surrounded the New Frontiersmen during their first months in Washington.

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Hue 1968: Round 2, March 1975

From Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, by Mark Bowden (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 8377-8420:

The city of Hue fell again and for good in March 1975, and Saigon followed a month later, as US helicopters scrambled to evacuate remaining American personnel and as many South Vietnamese officials as they could carry. The final images of desperate civilians clinging to the skids of American choppers as they lifted off framed the futility of the decade-long effort.

Nevertheless, in the nearly half century since, some American military historians and many American veterans have insisted that the Battle of Hue was won, and that, indeed, the entire Tet Offensive was an unqualified American victory. Westy certainly felt that way. Eight years later, in his autobiography A Soldier Reports, he was still insisting that he had not been surprised by the Tet attacks—he said he had forecast the attacks on the city but that word apparently did not reach the MACV compound in Hue. He conceded at long last that on the morning of January 31, 1968, “the MACV advisory compound was under siege and most of Hue was in enemy hands, including much of the Citadel.” Yet the battle to win back the city warranted only two pages in his 566-page book. He portrayed it in perfunctory terms, complimenting the American and South Vietnamese commanders on their excellent leadership, exaggerating enemy deaths, and underreporting the number of Americans killed by nearly a third. He lamented the destruction of the historic city, and effectively lay blame for all civilian losses on Hanoi, citing only those killed in the purges. He makes no mention of civilians killed by American and South Vietnamese bombing and shelling. If your knowledge of the Battle of Hue came from Westy alone—from his public statements at the time and from his memoir—you would view it as a thumping American victory.

You have to give the general credit for consistency. On the day after the Saigon flag was run back up the pole at Ngo Mon, he gave a long interview to reporters in Saigon, in which he again declared that the Tet Offensive had been a “military defeat” for Hanoi. He was still anticipating the big attack at Khe Sanh and did not even mention Hue. Even the fact that the enemy had surprised him (slightly) by the number of forces they deployed, to him this was not a setback but an opportunity: “In a very real sense, when he [the enemy] moved out of his jungle camps he made himself more vulnerable and gave us an opportunity to hurt him severely.” He denied that his official casualty estimates were inflated and said that the enemy’s offensive was a sign of desperation. Westy added that many NVA and VC had fought “halfheartedly.”

This was certainly not the experience of those who fought them in Hue. To a man, the American veterans I interviewed told me they had faced a disciplined, highly motivated, skilled, and determined enemy. To characterize them otherwise is to diminish the accomplishment of those who drove them out of Hue. But taking the city back qualifies as a “victory” only in a narrow sense—they achieved their objective. In any larger sense the word hardly applies. Both sides badly miscalculated. Hanoi counted on a popular uprising that didn’t come, while Washington and Saigon, blindsided, refused to believe the truth. Both sides played their roles courageously, and to terrible effect. In sum: Hanoi’s troops seized the city and were then forced at tremendous cost to relinquish it, while the city itself was leveled in the process. The status quo was upheld but greatly diminished, and it lasted for only a few more years. How is this victory? It takes a determined act of imagination for either side to make that claim. It makes more sense to consider the ways both sides lost.

If we use Westy’s favorite measure, the body count, the battle’s clearest losers were the citizens of Hue. In the city today, where memories of that nightmarish month are still bitter, it is said that there is a victim under every square meter of ground. It remains a shameful fact in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam that many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of its citizens were dispatched deliberately by their “liberators.” The ruling Communist Party labors to promote national unity by remembering the conflict not as a civil war but strictly as a struggle for independence, so reprisals against its own countrymen are an inconvenient memory. The party has never named or punished those responsible, not least because they were following clear orders from above. Many of those who carried out the purges have been celebrated as heroes of the state. The official position is that while there were some excesses, some “mistakes,” the numbers have been exaggerated by Vietnam’s enemies.

Of those who perished, by far the greatest number were killed by accident, either in the cross fire or by allied shelling and bombing. Accidental deaths do not equate morally to mass execution but, as the writer Tran Thi Thu Van has pointed out, the effect is the same. Today we rightly weigh the cost in civilian lives whenever violent action is taken, but I found very little concern expressed in 1968, not in any of the official papers I reviewed, not in contemporary press accounts or the dozens of books and papers written since, and not, for that matter, in any of the interviews I conducted. Vietnamese civilians, when they do come up, are described as a nuisance, even though the battle, like the war, was ostensibly about them. Nearly every marine I interviewed recalled seeing dead civilians in the streets, inside buildings, and in bunkers underneath those buildings. The Citadel, in particular, was a confined area, where escape was all but impossible. Nearly all the civilians I interviewed who survived the battle described losing family members, most often to shells and bombs. The survivors described, without hesitation, bombardment as the most terrifying memory, even those who’d had family members executed. If Hanoi did not win many new friends by taking Hue, neither did the allies in taking it back.

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Hue 1968: Winning and Losing

From Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, by Mark Bowden (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 8484-8494:

Still, there is no question that the Vietnamese people lost something precious when Hanoi won the war. One young woman from Ho Chi Minh City, born decades after the war ended, told me that her generation looks at Seoul and at Tokyo and asks, “Is this what we would have been if we hadn’t chased the Americans away?” And while the Communist Party has relaxed its hold on the economy, to great effect, Vietnam remains a strictly authoritarian state, where speaking your mind, or even recounting truthful stories from your own experience, can get you in trouble. Researching the Battle of Hue was tricky. In telling the story I was revisiting a heroic chapter in the national struggle, but I was also reopening old wounds. The purges in 1968 left many citizens with profound grievances against the state that they remain frightened to voice. Many were reluctant to speak candidly to me, particularly those with sad stories.

On my first visit I worked with an independent translator and guide, Dang Hoa Ho, a former Vietnamese military officer (he is too young to have fought in the American War and served in Vietnam’s modern army), who was skilled at putting people at ease and who fully understood my desire for uncensored memories. On my second trip, against my expressed wishes, Hoa was nudged aside by Dinh Hoang Linh, deputy director of Hanoi’s Foreign Press Center, part of the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Linh proved to be unfailingly helpful and charming, and a skilled translator, but his presence had a chilling effect.

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Hue 1968: Viet Cong Girls in the Fight

From Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, by Mark Bowden (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 6259-6275:

Che spoke no English, but she had been warned that when she heard the Americans shout “VeeCee,” it meant they needed to move fast, they had been spotted. She exchanged fire with the marines but never took careful aim. There were too many of them coming. When she used the rifle, she would just spray fire in the general direction of the enemy. After one skirmish she recovered a newer, more lightweight American rifle, an AR-15, which she preferred. Teams of the young people brought her ammo for it, looted from ARVN depots.

Whenever Lien fired her B-40 they would immediately run to a different trench, because it gave away their location and drew a hail of return fire. It took seven seconds for the launched grenade to explode. For some kinds of grenades it was only three seconds. For days they shot and ran, shot and ran. They moved so fast they rarely had a chance to see if they hit anything.

At the nearby Cong Market, her friend Hoang Thi No was engaged in a similar running street fight. She found the marines easy targets, because they were big and because they did not move confidently in the streets the way she and her team members could. She was very familiar with the blocks where she fought, so she knew which way to run when the shooting came close. To her, the Americans with all their heavy equipment were like men who had fallen from the sky to a strange planet. She picked them off individually, and when she found them in a group, she and her comrades threw grenades. The carnage she saw around her did not so much frighten as enrage her. Hoang resolved to fight to the death. She expected she would be wounded or killed because so many others had been. She didn’t think about it. She just fought. She was seventeen and excited and filled with pride and she did not tire easily. At night she and the others in her squad took turns sleeping for an hour or two. Four of those in her group were killed before they were finally ordered to withdraw to the forest and regroup.

Hoang’s team lasted longer than Che’s, which was in the path of Lieutenant Smith’s company. It held its own until the air and artillery bombardments started, which were unlike anything the girls had ever experienced.

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Hue 1968: Sensations of Battle

From Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, by Mark Bowden (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 6136-6148:

Men learned firsthand how to gauge the severity and type of wounds. Shrapnel burned. It was hot metal. If you were hit by shrapnel it felt like someone touching you with fire. With a bullet the first thing you felt, after the shocking impact but before the pain, was wetness. Shrapnel cauterized the wound instantly, but bullets made you bleed. You tried not to think too hard about it. Thinking about it was tempting fate. And fear? Fear was just the air you breathed.

Most kept going. The sun would rise and they would form up and wait to be told to run across another street, climb through another wall, barge through another door, knowing each time it might be their turn to pay the price. Art Marcotte, a private from Boston, would feel sick to his stomach with fear when he was ordered to step out into a street or run across a courtyard under fire. But he went.

Hygiene was a memory. Since many had been plucked from the field and sent directly to Hue, they had not washed in weeks. At night they shared a toothbrush. All of the men gave off a pungent odor. One of Connelly’s jobs as corpsman was to find a safe spot to dig a latrine, a trench. He would find a chair and knock the seat out of it to serve as a commode. One day in his second week Fox Company passed through a wastewater treatment facility near the canal. It had large circular vats made of concrete divided into reeking pie-shaped segments where human waste settled out before the water was drained off for the next step in its purification. A rocket blast knocked three marines into one of them, and because they were loaded with gear, there was a danger they might drown. Connelly and another corpsman had to plunge in to pull them out. They hadn’t thought it possible for men to smell worse, but after that, they did.

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