Tag: military affairs

Assessing the Arguments Against GI Jane II: Unpacking the Cohesion Hypothesis

In my post last week I talked about the three main arguments against removing the combat exclusion for women: the physical standards argument, the moral argument, and the cohesion hypothesis. My main point was that with increased research on physical standards, the intangibility of the moral argument, and increased evidence that women already are in combat, the cohesion hypothesis remains as the most significant set of arguments against GI Janes.

There are two main premises to the cohesion hypothesis: 1. cohesion is causally linked to group (in this case military unit) performance; 2. women negatively impact cohesion and thereby negatively impact troop effectiveness.

The trouble with these two premises is that they both have been largely discounted by researchers. In her 1998 article on the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy in International Security, Elizabeth Kier concludes that “the results from more than five decades of research in group dynamics, organizational behaviour, small-group research, sports psychology, social psychology, military history, and military sociology challenge the proposition that primary group unit cohesion enhances military performance.” Some research even indicates that high levels of cohesion can be detrimental to military performance as it results in conformity, groupthink, and a lack of adaptability. Many of the studies on cohesion and the military find that leadership and task- not social- cohesion have a greater impact on performance than social cohesion.

In terms of the second premise, as mentioned in the last post RAND’s major study on cohesion in 1997 found that women don’t impact group performance or military readiness. Subsequent research has reconfirmed this conclusion.

In addition to shaky (at best) premises, another major problem with the cohesion hypothesis is that it is never clear what exactly is meant by cohesion within the military context. In hopes of finding answers to this puzzle I went on a wild goose chase for cohesion clarity.



Sifting through research on social cohesion in the military I found myself sinking in masses of studies on social cohesion, citizenship and multiculturalism, group dynamics, as well as military studies on cohesion. It turns out that social cohesion is the meaningless catchphrase of the moment (I think it may have even eclipsed ’empowerment’ and ‘deliberative democracy’). Social cohesion has been used to explain the London riots, failed and successful immigration policies, winning sports team dynamics, as well as the need to keep women out of combat roles. Cohesion has also been defined as everything from: shared norms, ‘liking’ one another, commitment to a group, bonding, and trust. So how can one vague concept explain such wide-ranging and disparate policy decisions and social dynamics?

There is little substance to the cohesion hypothesis, almost no empirical evidence supporting it, and even the different forces with the US military seem to define and measure cohesion differently. I certainly don’t have the answer, but it does seem that in most contexts it is employed- especially in discussions of migrant integration, multiculturalism, and the combat exclusion- ‘cohesion’ is a red herring that distracts from attention to deeper issues of discrimination and cultural bias. In the case of the US military, cohesion is a smoke and mirrors debate that will persist until sexist attitudes and gender discrimination are addressed.

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A Beast in the Heart of Certain Small Units


Excellent in-depth discussion of the Stryker Brigade in the New York Times. What’s great about this piece is that the author goes into considerable depth to understand the structural context behind the so-called “Kill Team”‘s campaign of recreational murder against civilians, and resist the seductive and typical “bad apple” story.

That said, I think this piece over-determines the impact of simply being in a conflict zone and under-emphasizes the significance of unit structure and culture. It’s true that the longer a war drags on the greater the likelihood of some units ‘going rogue’ in this way. It’s also true that certain field conditions – boredom, isolation, loss of one’s comrades – increase the likelihood of atrocity. But within that context, some units commit atrocities and others don’t. A number of studies, including this one from Sierra Leone, this analysis of rape warfare, and another study on IDF units that I can’t yet cite because it’s not yet published, demonstrate that it is variation in the composition and disciplinary culture of small units themselves that account for variation in atrocity. Large-unit commanders may have little control over what small units are doing, but they have considerable control over the composition and disciplinary culture of those units.

For my part, I’m more interested the following aspects of this story, which come later in the piece or are not discussed at all:

a) Bad Apples At the Top. The role played by brigade commander Colonel Harry Tunnel, who handpicked the socio-pathic Gibbs to lead the group, and created a climate of disregard for McChrystal’s pro-civilian-protection rules after arriving in Afghanistan. The Army Times had a report on this issue back in 2009. Tunnel has been given a slap on the wrist by the military.

b) The Social Dynamics of Leadership Turnover in Small Units. Curious to know more from scholars or readers with military experience about what it does to an isolated unit out in the field when their leader is replaced by a newcomer who they neither know, like or trust. I have no idea if there’s any relationship between this situation and that leader’s propensity toward a certain kind of leadership style (both to engender unit cohesion with him at the top and to protect himself again fragging), but I know that Sgt Wuterich had also recently taken command of a pre-existing unit just prior to the Haditha massacre (not that the two incidents or unit commanders are otherwise very similar), and I wonder if this is a variable that has been considered or studied at all.

c) The Military Whistle-blowing System. Recruits are trained to disobey unlawful orders, prevent them from being carried out, and report them up the chain of command. As far as I understand it (please correct me or add to this) points of contact would include their military chaplain, the Provost-Marshall, or the Inspector General. But it’s quite unclear to me how someone like Private Andrew Holmes would be in a position to contact any of these individuals from a remote outpost, and to do so without tremendous risk to himself. Specialist Adam Winfield contacted his father by FB chat and spilled his guts, clearly wishing to throw light onto the issue and stop the atrocities. His father correctly contacted a variety of sources, but was told to have his son direct his complaints through the chain of command. Since this would clearly have put his life at risk, Christopher Winfield instructed him to go along for now for his own safety and promised to continue pressuring the authorities. Ultimately Winfield “went along” to the extent of shooting a civilian himself and is now (rightly) on trial for murder (as military law required him to turn his gun on Gibbs instead and he chose to commit a crime).

However it is shameful that the structural context in which he was embedded incentivized this behavior, which he clearly knew was wrong, rather than disobedience and whistle-blowing. The military does a fine job at protecting its troops from enemy harm through training and force protection measures. Shouldn’t they also be protected from retribution by their own units for disobeying manifestly unlawful orders? There is something wrong with putting such a burden of just conduct on troops in situations where their own life is at risk, without keeping in place a system by which they can do the right thing at a reasonably small risk to themselves. I think he US military needs to seriously reconsider the mechanisms in place for enlisted personnel to report unlawful activity anonymously; and if it won’t perhaps the NGO sector should step in.

[cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money]

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The Shifting Civil-Military Balance in Egypt

President Obama expressed a general sense of relief tonight that the Egyptian military chose to side with the people over the state this week – an outcome not at all pre-ordained by the pre-existing historical relationship between the Egyptian military and the govenrment. In 2004, for example, Stephen Cook concluded the Egypt case study in a Council on Foreign Relations report on civil-military relations in the Middle East as follows:

The organic connection between the Egyptian armed forces and the existing political order is likely to place a drag on Egyptian reform and complicate US efforts to bolster change. With their influence institutionalized at the highest levels of the state, the
officers are likely to countenance reforms that merely shore up the existing regime, but do not effect in any way their highly influential role over the course of Egypt’s political development.

What happened? Mark Thompson at Time Magazine argues:

Ever since the Camp David peace accords between Egypt and Israel, promising Egyptian military officers have come to U.S. military schools, including the Army War College in Carlisle, Penn., the Army’s Command General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. Inculcated there with U.S. ideals on lawful civilian control of military, such an education has helped act as a “safety” on the firepower of the Egyptian streets now massing in Cairo and in other cities.

“This new generation of Egyptian officers has been exposed to the American military and has had a very favorable impression of not just the way we fight our wars but also about the relationship between the military and society,” says Robert Scales, a retired Army major general who served as commandant of the Army War College where he launched the international fellows program. “One of the reasons for the army’s reluctance to follow Mubarak’s intent and squeeze the population in Cairo has to do with the Egyptian military’s exposure to the U.S. military.”

Now, I hope that someone following civil-mil in Egypt more closely than I have will weigh in on the veracity of this analysis. But if this is indeed even a significant element of the basic story, then it confirms an argument by Carol Atkinson on the liberalizing effect of military-to-military relations globally:

The research presented in this article examines one aspect of state socialization, the extent to which transnational military-to-military interactions have served as an effective mechanism of the democratic political socialization of states. The socialization process described in this study is three level: (1) individuals acquire new ideas; (2) coercion, incentives, and persuasion aid in institutionalizing these ideas in the underlying political structure of the state; and (3) once institutionalized, these new ideas/identity of the state influence the material and ideational structure of international society. Using an original data set encompassing over 160 states during the years 1972–2000, the analyses find U.S. military-to-military contacts to be positively and systematically associated with liberalizing trends.

Food for thought.

[cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money]

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“If You Want to Change the World, Change the Armies.”

I finally saw Men Who Stare at Goats this weekend. A significant number of reviews from last year when it came out reference the epigram to the film, “More of this stuff is true than you think.” However in my mind, the most important quote in the film is the one above.

If you try to read this film through any other lens – pacifism, spy culture, truth v. fiction re. the paranormal – it doesn’t work very well. That’s why a lot of reviewers either read the film as inept satire or as failed story-telling. But they don’t look closely at the two central questions driving the story: what constitutes just warriorhood, and can you incorporate an expansive view of just warriohood (one which includes respect for the planet) more fully into existing military institutions? In other words, how do you change armies in order to change (and maybe save) the world?

The first of these two themes is brought into sharp relief by the Jedi subtext associated with the New Earth Army. You can read its central feature as the use of psychic warfare or “Jedi mind-trick” mythology, but the Jedi language is also about something deeper: the just use of limited force in the service of peace, justice and (now) environmental security. Read through this lens (as opposed to some decisive statement about the possibility of psychic warfare), the ending is much more satisfactory than many reviewers claim. To be a “super-soldier” is to walk the path of the just warrior, to be on the side of the innocent and vulnerable, and to be at one with the universe of which we are part.

And how do you change armies to this effect? For part of the genius of the story is its contrast between these ideals and existing military culture. The film is a bit agnostic on this second point. So is the actual history on which it is based, which you can learn about by reading the book or watching the documentary on which the film was based. I leave it to readers to offer their thoughts about the take-home message there.

[cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money]

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The “Sea Witch,” Ann Hopkins, and Why We Never Seem to Learn about Sex and Gender


In the print version of Time Magazine, the story linked in the title of this post is itself titled differently. Instead of “The Rise and Fall of a Female Captain Bligh,” the story is called “The Sea Witch.” Much of the story is the same, however: a female captain in the United States Navy was relieved of her command for “cruelty and maltreatment” of her crew aboard the U.S.S. Cowpens. Among the (ir)relevant tidbits about Captain Graf in the article are: that she remains single, despite the fact that her sister married; that a chaplain once told her she was “a nice lady” who had “a hard job”; and that she “acted like a man.”

The “punchline” of the story, for Time Magazine, is that the Navy had long ignored “warning signs about her suitability for command” because of her gender – that is, that the Navy was looking for women officers, so willing to ignore that the available ones were actually bad at their jobs.

Twenty years ago, in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, the United States Supreme Court paved the way for the award of one of the costliest individual verdicts in the history of U.S. jurisprudence to a woman named Ann Hopkins. Price Waterhouse had denied Ann Hopkins promotion to partner because she was a woman who didn’t comport herself as such – she was too “manly” – despite having risen quickly through the ranks of the company.

When I read the “Sea Witch” story in Time, I couldn’t help thinking how little we seem to have learned from Ann Hopkins and one of the landmark sex discrimination cases in U. S. history.


Other online articles and blogs (some not linked here in order to avoid potential spam for Duck of Minerva), characterize her “temperament” as “unnatural,” call Graf “leather-skinned,” blame her for humiliating men as well as women, call her a “bull dyke,” and questioning her sexual preference.

These comments are reminiscent of those made about Janis Karpinksi, the commander of several Iraqi prisons including Abu Ghraib during the prison abuse scandal, which I have written about elsewhere. But more, they are reminiscent of the comments made about Ann Hopkins that got the courts to award her backpay and partnership in the company.

Corporations, governments, and militaries are “including” women in their ranks at record levels, though women remain far from equally represented in positions of power. Still, this inclusion does not come with an automatic reform of the organizations which are adding women to their ranks. Instead, these organizations remain ones that value traits associated with masculinity (such as strength, rationality, and autonomy) over traits associated with femininity (such as interdependence, emotion, and care). This is, however, a catch-22 for their new women members, who can make a certain amount of progress by adopting traits associated with masculinity, but are constantly questioned about what has happened to their femininity.

Melissa Brown’s research about U.S. military recruiting ads captures some of this paradox. According to Brown, the U.S. military has begun to feature women in recruiting ads, either as the target of ads or alongside men. These ads, however, display women adept at the “masculine” jobs of the military, but with long hair, make-up, and often, high heels – which is not how many women doing military jobs actually look as they are doing them. The message seems clear: a woman soldier must be as capable of masculinity and masculine tasks as a (man) soldier, since masculinity is the measure of military prowess. But, as I have noted in analyses of the media coverage and military treatment of Jessica Lynch and Lynndie England, women must pair that militarized masculinity with traits traditionally associated with femininity, such as softness, innocence, kindness, and feminine appearance.

When are we going to get, individually or as a society, that is not about men and women but about masculinities and femininities? Whatever else Graf was relieved of her command for, she was relieved of her command because her behavior was so far from traditional understandings of women’s gender roles that it was unrecognizable as femininity. As one Naval Officer quoted in the Time story related, “she acted like a man, and she is now being punished for it.” Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins should have taught us that expecting those we perceive women to be “like women” and punishing them when they are not is unacceptable in any professional environment.

I don’t know about Holly Graf’s leadership skills – if many of the stories are to be believed, there were serious problems with the way she ran her command. But the stories about her profanity, verbal abuse, and condescension are not unique in stories of military leadership. Perhaps it is time to start asking more questions about the gendered nature of military leadership, and why it took a woman’s hypermasculinity to get us talking about it.

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Israel’s Integrated Military

Danny Kaplan at Foreign Policy is pointing out how the US lags behind other top-notch militaries like the IDF in its nascent, grudging willingness to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly.

The United States and Turkey are now the only NATO military powers that do not allow gays to serve openly, but Israel and other countries have shown that the participation of gay soldiers in combat units presents no risk for military effectiveness. What’s more, acknowledging their presence might even improve unite cohesion.

No “might” about it, actually; Elizabeth Kier’s study of this topic twelve years ago demonstrated it does. She drew attention back then to the distinction between “unit cohesion” which is indeed based on a sense of commonality among fellow fighters, and “task cohesion” – the ability to actually get things done in a professional manner – which at times can actually be threatened by too much unit cohesion resulting in group-think. While the “military morale” arguments have accounted for the opposition to open integration by conservatives, Kier explains this only applies to unit cohesion, but it’s task cohesion that makes military units effective.

[cross-posted at LGM]

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“Freedom Fries” A Threat to National Security

When I make the connection between health and national security in my classes, we usually talk about pandemics or bio-warfare. But check this out: a new study from the Army Times tells us that unhealthy diets also drastically reduce America’s military readiness.

Turns out 35% of young Americans between the ages of 18-24 are unfit to serve in the military because they’re too fat, up from 6% 20 years ago. Noah Schactman has more.

Is this any surprise, really?

Perhaps the US government should declare a global war on cholesterol in the name of national security. Only instead of using unmanned drones to target those freedom-hating global corporations who market high-fat meals to our kids, perhaps DHS could just team up with USDA to get fresh fruits and vegetables into our public schools, and pop / candy machines (and fast-food propaganda) out. Updating the USDA’s definition of “junk food” would be a start. Clearly, the safety of our shores depends on it!

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“Men” at “War”: Reflections on “The Hurt Locker”


Tantalized by Eric Randolph’s glowing review, I watched The Hurt Locker this past week. I can see what Eric means by the film being almost in its own genre – a film about the everyday work of soldiering during an occupation, with no grand narrative about the rightness or wrongness of the war. But in my view, that is it’s own grand narrative: a study in what soldiering is becoming, and the implications for soldiers and for society.

So I viewed this film as an artifact of an emerging era in civil-military relations, an indicator of the kind of war stories we are currently telling ourselves as a society. How divergent is this film from earlier constructions? I noticed two things that were very interesting.

The first was a near-absolute absence of women in the film, other than the typical waiting-wife. Yet a significant number of those serving in Iraq are women. The NYTimes reported recently that this critical mass of female fighters “has changed the way the US military goes to war… reshaped life on bases across Iraq and Afghanistan… cultivated a new generation of women with a warrior’s ethos – and combat experience… and have done so without the disruption of unit coehsion that some feared would unfold.” Given those real-life changes, it’s interesting that this “new kind of war movie” would rely on such an age-old script about war being essentially men’s work, the role of women in a wartime economy to wait at home raising babies in frustration alone.

But with all the manly bodies dominating the screen, the second thing I noticed was the raw emotionality of the film. This was not a film about militarized maculinity per se but about individual men struggling with and against such an archetype and leaning on one another emotionally – to the point of a touch-feeliness we usually see reserved for chick flicks in the US. Is this frame is meant to invoke recent changes in military policy (for example, struggling with morale problems, suicides, domestic violence and divorce, the US Army is now requiring every soldier to take intensive training in emotional resiliency)? Or is it simply part of the director’s effort to recast military life and the coping skills required to survive it?

Either way, of the two trends – the integration of women into combat roles and the integration of attributes associated with the feminine into our concepts of warriorhood – I think the latter is much more significant in societal terms, and I was glad to see it reflected in the portrayals here.

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Frackin’ Toasters

In the mailbox today, I found my pre-ordered copy of Peter Singer‘s new book Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century. NPR had an interview with Singer yesterday, which gives you a good sense of his argument and some of the fascinating and frightening changes coming down the pipeline in military affairs.

I was excited to sink my teeth into this before the semester gets started, since I’m eager to update my curriculum on battlefield robots, and since I’ll be blogging in an upcoming symposium at Complex Terrain Lab on the book next month. I’ll save most of my substantive remarks for that forum, and for such time as I’ve actually read the entire book. But based on the first two pages, I have two quick initial reactions:

1) From the very first three sentences, Singer does not disappoint:

“Because they’re frakin’ cool. That’s a short answer to why someone would spend four years researching and writing a book on new technologies and war. The long answer is a bit more complicated.”

I love it – you don’t get a better hook or prose more engaging than that.

2) However I must take issue with a certain assertion in Singer’s very first (and otherwise fascinating) endnote (p. 439), on the etymology of the word “frak”:

“Frak is a made-up expletive that originated in the computer science research world. It then made it way into video gaming, ultimately becoming the title of a game designed for the BBG Micro and Commodre 64 in the early 1980s. The main character, a caveman called Trogg, would say ‘Frak!’ in a litle speech bubble whenever he was ‘killed.’ It soon spread into science fiction, appearing in such games as Cyberpunk 2020 and the Warhammer 40,000 novels. It crossed over into the mainstream most explicitly in the new 2003 reboot of the 1970s TV series Battlestar Galactica. That the characters in the updated version of the TV show cursed, albeit with a made-up word, was part of the grimier, more serious feel of the show.”

In fact, however, the word was used (ok, maybe not quite as frequently) in the earlier show as well – albeit spelled “frack.” According to Battlestar WikiBlog:

“”Frak” is derived from the Original Series expletive, “frack,” a term used in character dialogue far less often (or “colorfully”) than its counterpart in the Re-imagined Series. The Re-imagined Series’s production team said they felt that “frack” should be a four-letter word, hence “frak”. The term “frack” was obviously used in dialogue in the Original Series to comply with FCC and other broadcast decency standards because the FCC has jurisdiction over the content of broadcast TV.”

See also here… I don’t generally encourage using Wikipedia as a primary source (take heed ye Polsci 121 students) but in this case I can’t think of a better place to get a sense of the popular understanding of a made-up word’s etymology.

That aside, I look forward to reading and commenting on the rest. Good stuff.

UPDATE (11:22pm). Having put the kids to bed, am now on p. 14 – if this isn’t a good reason to go buy this book, what is? Singer writes:

“[This] book makes many allusions to popular culture, not something you normaly find in a research work on war, politics, or science. Some references are obvious and some are not (and thus the first reader to send a complete list of them to me at www.pwsinger.com will receive a signed copy of the book and a Burger King Transformers collectible).

How frakking cool is that?

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On Norm-Building as a Vocation

On the last day of class in “Rules of War,” I ask my students what kinds of things are needed to strengthen the regime governing the conduct of war. They come up with all kinds of nifty ideas, and then I ask them what they’ll personally do to move the world in that direction. For awhile they struggle to come up with anything more concrete than “raise awareness,” but after awhile they will say things like, “run for office,” or “join the State Department,” or “go to work for Doctors Without Borders.”

They rarely say they’ll join the military and work from within to uphold the spirit of the Geneva Conventions. This year, I asked my students if any of them would consider this. A few raised their hands, but most shook their heads, almost in disbelief. I asked why. Someone said, “Because the culture of the military pushes you in the opposite direction.”

It was an interesting moment for me as an educator, to realize how many of my students had taken this message away from class, when in fact military culture can and does push in either direction, depending on the nature of the policy, the circumstances and in particular, the leadership. And when in fact the relevant question to ask is whether other institutional cultures in US foreign policy are really more Geneva-friendly than the military. I have my doubts, but I had failed somehow to cultivate those in my students.

Maybe it was all the atrocity literature we’d read, the Milgram and Stanford prison studies, and the detailed case material on Abu Ghraib that made them so certain that if you want to protect innocent people, the military – or any institution that teaches obedience first and foremost – is the wrong place to be. Maybe my error was in not balancing the story of Lieutenant William Calley out sufficiently with the story of Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, the helicoper pilot who put himself between Calley’s men and the civilians of My Lai. Perhaps in dwelling too much on the surveys from Iraq showing that more than a third of US troops think torture is sometimes OK, I missed the important comparison, which is what percentage of the US civilian masses, or policymakers, answer the same way on such surveys. Turns out that for the general public, at least, it’s around the same – 38%, according to a 2006 Gallup poll.

Or maybe it was the absence of active-duty military personnel in this particular class. (This was an important shift from the normal distribution of students I would teach at University of Pittsburgh, which in the past included an Army Chaplain whose policy paper argued for incorporated laws-of-war training into first-person-shooter games to prime enlistees to respect civilians in urban areas, and Roy Nickerson, whose blog posts from Iraq regularly include notes like the following:

“It’s the children that make me feel it: hope. Not some hope related to grand government programs, campaign promises, or lofty world peace solutions, but a next-day type of hope. A hope that maybe these kids will come closer to a reliable sewer system, sanitation, clean water, and consistent electricity. The hope that maybe life for them gets a little bit better tomorrow.”)

At any rate, I thought about that student from this year’s class, at once ready to join the State Department and forego military service, when I read this news story about the UN response to piracy off the Horn of Africa. The Security Council has authorized governments to use “all necessary means” to stamp out piracy on Somalia’s coast, essentially sanctioning the use of ground forces against pirate strongholds. It’s interesting to note that the US State Department pushed for this very approach, but the Pentagon is more cautious. Why? Because of the potential for collateral damage:

“The commander of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet expressed doubt last week about the wisdom of staging ground attacks on Somali pirates. Vice Adm. Bill Gortney told reporters it is difficult to identify pirates and said the potential for killing innocent civilians “cannot be overestimated.”

While US military personnel do not think as one, I think this anecdote suggests an important line of inquiry for teachers and students of international security norms: which institutional cultures in the US (and in other countries) are actually most and least predisposed to restraint in the use of political violence, and what does this mean for generating compliance with the rules of war? It’s an interesting academic question, but also one with a direct bearing on the tactical decisions of our human-security minded youth as they make decisions about where to best leverage their own professional capital in pursuit of their values.

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