Perhaps we are bad guys in the Middle East’s wars

Summary: Major Sjursen asks a question we almost never ask about our wars, lost in our self-absorption and self-righteousness, lacking empathy and awareness of how our actions appear to others. These are expensive vices. We pay for them with money and blood. The longer these mad wars continue, the odds that the final bill will come due.

Afghanistan war


Worth Dying For?

“When It Comes to the War in the Greater Middle East, Maybe We’re the Bad Guys.”

By Danny Sjursen (Major, US Army).
From TomDispatch, 7 September 2017.


I used to command soldiers. Over the years, lots of them actually. In Iraq, Colorado, Afghanistan, and Kansas. And I’m still fixated on a few of them like this one private first class (PFC) in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2011. All of 18, he was short, scrawny, and popular. Nine months after graduating from high school, he’d found himself chasing the Taliban with the rest of our gang. At five foot nothing, I once saw him step into an irrigation canal and disappear from sight — all but the two-foot antenna on his radio. In my daydreams, I always see the same scene, the moment his filthy, grizzled baby face reappeared above that ditch, a cigarette still dangling loosely from his lips. His name was Anderson and I can remember thinking at that moment: What will I tell his mother if he gets killed out here?

And then …poof …it’s 2017 again and I’m here in Kansas, pushing papers at Fort Leavenworth, those days in the field long gone. Anderson himself survived his tour of duty in Afghanistan, though I’ve no idea where he is today. A better commander might. Several of his buddies were less fortunate. They died, or found themselves short a limb or two, or emotionally and morally scarred for life.

From time to time I can’t help thinking of Anderson, and others like him, alive and dead. In fact, I wear two bracelets on my wrist engraved with the names of the young men who died under my command in Afghanistan and Iraq, six names in all. When I find a moment, I need to add another. It wasn’t too long ago that one of my soldiers took his own life. Sometimes the war doesn’t kill you until years later.

And of this much I’m certain: the moment our nation puts any PFC Anderson in harm’s way, thousands of miles and light years from Kansas, there had better be a damn good reason for it, a vital, tangible national interest at stake. At the very least, this country better be on the right side in the conflicts we’re fighting.

Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge
Available at Amazon.

The Wrong Side.

It’s long been an article of faith here: the United States is the greatest force for good in the world, the planet’s “indispensable nation.” But what if we’re wrong? After all, as far as I can tell, the view from the Arab or African “street” tells a different story altogether. Americans tend to loathe the judgments of foreigners, but sober strategy demands that once in a while we walk the proverbial mile in the global shoes of others. After all, almost 16 years into the war on terror it should be apparent that something isn’t working. Perhaps it’s time to ask whether the United States is really playing the role of the positive protagonist in a great global drama.

I know what you’re thinking: ISIS, the Islamic State, is a truly awful outfit. And so it is and the U.S. is indeed combatting it, though various allies and even adversaries (think: Iran) are doing most of the fighting. Still, with the broader war for the Greater Middle East in mind, wouldn’t it be appropriate to stop for a moment and ask: Just whose side is America really on?

Certainly, it’s not the side of the average Arab. That should be apparent. Take a good, hard look at the region and it’s obvious that Washington mainly supports the interests of Israel, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Egypt’s military dictator, and various Gulf State autocracies. Or consider the actions and statements of the Trump administration and of the two administrations that preceded it and here’s what seems obvious: the United States is in many ways little more than an air force, military trainer, and weapons depot for assorted Sunni despots. Now, that’s not a point made too often — not in this context anyway — because it’s neither a comfortable thought for most Americans, nor a particularly convenient reality for establishment policymakers to broadcast, but it’s the truth.

Yes, we do fight ISIS, but it’s hardly that simple. Saudi Arabia, our main regional ally, may portray itself as the leader of a “moderate Sunni block” when it comes to both Iran and terrorism, but the reality is, at best, far grayer than that. The Saudis — with whom President Trump announced a $110 billion arms deal during the first stop on his inaugural foreign trip back in May — have spent the last few decades spreading their intolerant brand of Islam across the region. In the process, they’ve also supported al-Qaeda-linked groups in Syria.

Maybe you’re willing to argue that al-Qaeda spin-offs aren’t ISIS, but don’t forget who brought down those towers in New York. While President Trump enjoyed a traditional sword dance with his Saudi hosts — no doubt gratifying his martial tastes — the air forces of the Saudis and their Gulf state allies were bombing and missiling Yemeni civilians into the grimmest of situations, including a massive famine and a spreading cholera epidemic amid the ruins of their impoverished country. So much for the disastrous two-year Saudi war there, which goes by the grimly ironic moniker of Operation Restoring Hope and for which the U.S. military provides midair refueling and advanced munitions, as well as intelligence.

If you’re a human rights enthusiast, it’s also worth asking just what kind of states we’re working with here. In Saudi Arabia, women can’t drive automobiles, “sorcery” is a capital offense, and people are beheaded in public. Hooray for American values! And newsflash: Iran’s leaders — whom the Trump administration and its generals are obsessed with demonizing — may be no angels, but the Islamic republic they preside over is a far more democratic country than Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy. Imagine Louis XIV in a kufiyah and you’ve just about nailed the nature of Saudi rule.

After Israel, Egypt is the number two recipient of direct U.S. military aid, to the tune of $1.3 billion annually. And that bedrock of liberal values is led by U.S.-trained General Abdul el-Sisi, a strongman who seized power in a coup and then, just for good measure, had his army gun down a crowd demonstrating in favor of the deposed democratically elected president. And how did the American beacon of hope respond? Well, Sisi’s still in power; the Egyptian military is once again receiving aid from the Pentagon; and, in April, President Trump paraded the general around the White House, assuring reporters, “in case there was any doubt, that we are very much behind President el-Sisi …he’s done a fantastic job!”

In Syria and Iraq, the U.S. military is fighting a loathsome adversary in ISIS, but even so, the situation is far more complicated than usually imagined here. As a start, the U.S. air offensive to support allied Syrian and Kurdish rebels fighting to take ISIS’s “capital,” Raqqa — grimly titled Operation Wrath of the Euphrates — killed more civilians this past May and June than the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. In addition, America’s brutal air campaign appears unhinged from any coherent long-term strategy. No one in charge seems to have the faintest clue what exactly will follow ISIS’s rule in eastern Syria. A Kurdish mini-state? A three-way civil war between Kurds, Sunni tribes, and Assad’s forces (with Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic Turkey as the wild card in the situation)? Which begs the question: Are American bombs actually helping?

Similarly, in Iraq it’s not clear that the future rule of Shia-dominated militia groups and others in the rubble left by the last years of grim battle in areas ISIS previously controlled will actually prove measurably superior to the nightmare that preceded them. The present Shia-dominated government might even slip back into the sectarian chauvinism that helped empower ISIS in the first place. That way, the U.S. can fight its fourth war in Iraq since 1991!

And keep in mind that the war for the Greater Middle East — and I fought in it myself both in Iraq and in Afghanistan — is just the latest venture in the depressing annals of Washington’s geo-strategic thinking since President Ronald Reagan’s administration, along with the Saudis and Pakistanis, armed, funded, and supported extreme fundamentalist Afghan mujahedeen rebels in a Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union that eventually led to the 9/11 attacks. His administration also threw money, guns, and training — sometimes illegally — at the brutal Nicaraguan Contras in another Cold War covert conflict in which about 100,000 civilians died.

In those years, the United States also stood by apartheid South Africa — long after the rest of the world shunned that racist state — not even removing Nelson Mandela’s name from its terrorist watch list until 2008! And don’t forget Washington’s support for Jonas Savimbi’s National Movement for the Total Independence of Angola that would contribute to the death of some 500,000 Angolans. And that’s just to begin a list that would roll on and on.

That, of course, is the relatively distant past, but the history of U.S. military action in the twenty-first century suggests that Washington seems destined to repeat the process of choosing the wrong, or one of the wrong, sides into the foreseeable future. Today’s Middle East is but a single exhibit in a prolonged tour of hypocrisy.


Boundless Hypocrisy.

Maybe it’s because most Americans just aren’t paying attention or maybe we’re a nation of true believers, but it’s clear that most of us still cling to the idea that our country is a beacon of hope for the planet. Never known for our collective self-awareness, we’re eternally aghast to discover that so many elsewhere find little but insincerity in the promise of U.S. foreign policy. “Why do they hate us,” Americans have asked, with evident disbelief, for much of this century. Here are just a few hints related to the Greater Middle East:

*Post-9/11, the United States unleashed chaos in the region, destabilized it in stunning ways, and via an invasion launched on false premises created the conditions for ISIS’s rise. (That terror group quite literally formed in an American prison in post-invasion Iraq.) Later, with failing or failed states dotting the region, the U.S. response to the worst refugee crisis since World War II has been to admit — to choose but a single devastated country — a paltry 18,000 Syrians since 2011. Canada took in three times that number last year; Sweden more than 50,000 in 2015 alone; and Turkey hosts three million displaced Syrians.

*Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s attempts to put in place a Muslim travel ban haven’t won this country any friends in the region either; nor will the president’s — or White House aide Stephen Miller’s — proposed “reform” of U.S. immigration policy, which would prioritize English-speakers, cut in half legal migration within a decade, and limit the ability of citizens and legal residents to sponsor relatives. How do you think that’s going to play in the global war for hearts and minds? As much as Miller would love to change Emma Lazarus’s inscription on the Statue of Liberty to “give me your well educated, your highly skilled, your English-speaking masses yearning to be free,” count on one thing: world opinion won’t miss the duplicity and hypocrisy of such an approach.

*Guantánamo — perhaps the single best Islamist recruiting tool on Earth — is still open. And, says President Trump, we’re “keeping it open… and we’re gonna load it up with some bad dudes, believe me, we’re gonna load it up.” On this, he’s likely to be a man of his word. A new executive order is expected soon, preparing the way for an expansion of that prison’s population, while the Pentagon is already planning to put almost half a billion dollars into the construction of new facilities there in the coming years. No matter how upset the world gets at any of this, no matter how ISIS and other terror groups use it for their brand of advertising, no American officials will be held to account, because the United States is not a signatory to the International Criminal Court. Hypocritical? Nope, just utterly all-American.

*And speaking of prisons, thanks to nearly unqualified — sometimes almost irrational — U.S. support for Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank increasingly resemble walled off penal complexes. You almost have to admire President Trump for not even pretending to play the honest broker in the never-ending Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He typically told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “One state, two state… I like whichever you like.” The safe money says Netanyahu will choose neither, opting instead to keep the Palestinians in political limbo without civil rights or a sovereign state, while Israel embarks on a settlement bonanza in the occupied territories. And speaking of American exceptionalism, we’re almost alone on the world stage when it comes to our support for the Israeli occupation.

River of blood

The Cost.

Given the nature of contemporary American war-fighting (far away and generally lightly covered by the media, which has an endless stream of Trump tweets to fawn over), it’s easy to forget that American troops are still dying in modest numbers in the Greater Middle East, in Syria, in Iraq, in Somalia, and — almost 16 years after the American invasion of that country — in Afghanistan.

As for myself, from time to time (too often for comfort) I can’t help thinking of PFC Anderson and those I led who were so much less fortunate than him: Rios, Hensley, Clark, Hockenberry (a triple amputee), Fuller, Balsley, and Smith. Sometimes, when I can bear it, I even think about the war’s countless Afghan victims. And then I wish I could truly believe that we were indisputably the “good guys” in our unending wars across the Greater Middle East because that’s what we owed those soldiers.

And it pains me no less that Americans tend to blindly venerate the PFC Andersons of our world, to put them on such a pedestal (as the president did in his Afghan address to the nation recently), offering them eternal thanks, and so making them and their heroism the reason for fighting on, while most of the rest of us don’t waste a moment thinking about what (and whom) they’re truly fighting for.

If ever you have the urge to do just that, ask yourself the following question: Would I be able to confidently explain to someone’s mother what (besides his mates) her child actually died for?

What would you tell her? That he (or she) died to ensure Saudi hegemony in the Persian Gulf, or to facilitate the rise of ISIS, or an eternal Guantanamo, or the spread of terror groups, or the creation of yet more refugees for us to fear, or the further bombing of Yemen to ensure a famine of epic proportions?

Maybe you could do that, but I couldn’t and can’t. Not anymore, anyway. There have already been too many mothers, too many widows, for whom those explanations couldn’t be lamer. And so many dead — American, Afghan, Iraqi, and all the rest — that eventually I find myself sitting on a bar stool staring at the six names on those bracelets of mine, the wreckage of two wars reflecting back at me, knowing I’ll never be able to articulate a coherent explanation for their loved ones, should I ever have the courage to try.

Fear, guilt, embarrassment …my crosses to bear, as the war Anderson and I fought only expands further and undoubtedly more disastrously. My choices, my shame. No excuses.

Here’s the truth of it, if you just stop to think about America’s wars for a moment: it’s only going to get harder to look a widow or mother in the eye and justify them in the years to come. Maybe a good soldier doesn’t bother to worry about that …but I now know one thing at least: I’m not that.

Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.


About the author

Major Danny Sjursen is a U.S. Army strategist and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. He lives with his wife and four sons near Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Danny Sjursen

Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet. See his other articles at TomDispatch.

For More Information

If you found this post of use, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Also see all posts about Afghanistan and Iraqabout COIN, and especially these…

  1. The King of Brobdingnag comments on America’s grand strategy.
  2. Is America a destabilizing force in the world?
  3. Is America fighting the tide of history? Are we like the Czars in the 19th century?
  4. Return of the COINistas (the zombies of military theory).
  5. America has the victory disease. It won’t end well for us.

Useful books to better understand our mad wars.

The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II by John Dower.

Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World by Tom Engelhardt.

The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II
Available at Amazon.
Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World
Available at Amazon.


20 thoughts on “Perhaps we are bad guys in the Middle East’s wars”

  1. Pingback: Perhaps we are bad guys in the Middle East’s wars – Fabius Maximus website | Arab.News

  2. Pingback: Perhaps we are bad guys in the Middle East’s wars – Fabius Maximus website – CHB Blog

  3. We ain’t the bad guys major. You and others provided the Afghan and Iraqi people with a gift and they squandered. I’m truly sorry for the loss of your men and with them in mind let us not do this again.

    1. Gute,

      What a weird perspective. We invade Iraq under false pretenses. Wreck their infrastructure and their economy. Destabilize their society, sparking civil war. As a result it moves from a secular tyranny (with potential to follow the modernizing path of so many other nations since WWII) into a theocracy. Women’s rights are vaporized. Religious minorities are persecuted; many flee as refugees.

      You consider this a “gift.” Let’s hope nobody gives your nation such a “gift.” I doubt you would thank them.

  4. FM,

    This was hard to read – and it is even harder to think about.

    Thank you for posting it here.

    Jim Gant

  5. “Now, that’s not a point made too often — not in this context anyway — because it’s neither a comfortable thought for most Americans, nor a particularly convenient reality for establishment policymakers to broadcast, but it’s the truth.”

    And truth is the first casualty of war.

    I find it awfully hard not to be terribly cynical about all that’s presented here, i.e., it’s all about profits. Been that way for centuries.

    1. pgrommit,

      “it’s all about profits.”

      That’s a very American perspective, but not remotely complete. Power (the “will to power”) is an equally powerful motivation. Ideology, religion, and even raw hatred (in its many forms) are also powerful drives to action.

      People are complex, and the world is almost unimaginably so. Oversimplification leads to bad analysis.

      “I find it awfully hard not to be terribly cynical about all that’s presented here”

      Me, too. But I think anger is more useful than cynicism (see And better yet is the unquenchable drive to build a better world.

  6. As another former major tossed aside by the U.S. war machine because I was no longer in step with their values or hypocrisy, the major has hit the proverbial nail on the head with this piece.

    My only correction would be is that most Americans wouldn’t know what Sunni even means, so yes we are engrossed in our own arrogant self-righteous and arrogant views. When we say “exceptional” the rest of the world murmurs “narcissists”.

    You know, Hitler truly believed he could make peace with the Brits and Americans, especially due to the latter’s penchant for its own acts of ethnic cleansing and racial superiority. Remember, Time magazine named Hitler Man of the Year in 1938 and Josef Stalin (who killed more of his own people than Hitler did) was given this honor twice by Time. The chickens will come home to roost as they say and when Rome falls the rest of the world will erupt in thunderous applause. In the meantime, we will continue to be distracted by our idolization of celebrity culture until the barbarians are within the gates. In the end, Bin Laden will have the final laugh. Color me cynical.

    1. Major McCloud (retired),

      Thank you for your service, and for sharing your insights in this comment.

      “Remember, Time magazine named Hitler Man of the Year”

      TIME repeatedly says that “Person of the Year” (as it is now called) is not a commendation or honor. Hence the designations to Adolf Hitler (1938), Joseph Stalin (1939 and 1942), Nikita Khrushchev (1957), and Ayatollah Khomeini (1979). It’s just a recognition of people who are affecting the world, for good or ill. Time was a hard-core cold warrior supporter. It’s editors would have committed seppuku rather than honor Khrushchev in 1957!

      “The chickens will come home to roost as they say and when Rome falls”

      Since the Founding people have been saying America will fall. They have been wrong for 241 years. I won’t bet against us. The capacity for reform — even self-renewal — has been a core part of our character. I believe it still is. Time will tell, eventually.

    2. I don’t dispute the claim that we, as Americans, have the capacity for reform. I just believe that major reform will not happen until a major crisis unfolds, which is kind of the typical American response to anything in our long and checkered history. We are very much a reactionary society, but that is probably just more evidence that the system of governance the founding fathers came up with has so many built-in checks and balances that any type of major reform is impossible without a dire emergency for the Republic.

      1. Major McCloud,

        “I just believe that major reform will not happen until a major crisis unfolds”

        That’s quite possible. It’s not, imo, an accurate framing however.

        First — going back to your comment about Rome falling — societies seldom fall due to a crisis. They have a series of crises, of increasing severity. The question is how quickly and effectively the society responds. It’s an OODA-loop thing — working thru the process of Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action. The US has usually responded moderately fast and very effectively, as such things go (the process only works well in Heaven, but there are probably no crises there).

        Second, we have not always waited for a crisis to begin preparation. For example, people look at Pearl Harbor as the crisis that sparked US action in WWII. As you know, that’s quite false. US mobilization started years before. Naval construction ramped up in 1937. Army Air Corp expansion began in early 1939. FDR signed the first US peacetime draft bill in Sept 1940. Mobilization could have been faster and earlier, but was good enough.

    3. Correct, the US Navy and Marines started conducting War Plan Orange exercises every year starting in the early 1920s. Major Ellis was sent out on a “extended vacation and tour” of the Pacific islands long before the Japanese started their rapid conquest of the European colonies and other low-hanging fruit in the Pacific in the 1930s and early 1940s. The Japanese were also ardent believers of Alfred Thayer Mahan which permeated their naval doctrine until it was too late, despite the fact that their Kido Butai had demonstrated the very importance of massed carrier aviation in sinking the opponents surface fleet in late 1941 and early 1942 when they swept the Pacific with their carriers and naval airwings. Of course, the war probably started when Commodore Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay in 1853 and used a little “gunboat diplomacy” to open Japan backup to Western trade.

      I too like using historical events to measure potential future crisis, but the barbarians didn’t have access to cheap technology, instant communications anywhere in the world, transportation that could seamlessly fly them into the heart of Rome with just a 2-hour flight from central Europe, and last but not least access to weapons that could devastate entire cities and kill millions of Romans in one single operation.

      I think we learned the wrong lesson from 9/11 as your other pieces about 9/11 have demonstrated quite superbly. Our response was the wrong one and instead of making us safer we are only more in danger of a major crisis or series of crisis from landing on our doorstep. I am reminded of the movie The Untouchables when Elliot Ness and crew not only instigate Capone and Company but even manage to alienate their fellow corrupt police officers, politicians, and judges who provide the warning “You think you’re untouchable don’t you?”

      I think part of the problem is that as the Cold War generation grows old in this country, many younger people in this country just can’t comprehend the dangers of nuclear weapons and how easy it would really be for another determined Bin Laden type, with the backing of a shady government entity wanting to exact revenge on the US, to “lose” a few nukes. Of course, I don’t even think our “intelligence” community even knows how many former Soviet nukes went “missing” when the USSR collapsed in 1991, but I digress.

      Or we could just continue to instigate other nuclear armed powers like China and Russia. I mean, certainly nothing bad could come of it right? And now we have a man known for his thin-skin and poor impulse control with his hand on the nuclear trigger. Interesting times.

      1. Major McCloud,

        I had misinterpreted your comment. I thought you meant “crisis” like Rome in a broader sense. If you are speaking in purely military terms, I agree. See We’re goading our enemies to attack America. Eventually we’ll succeed, and they will.

        I doubt that would be a “fall of Rome” event. Or event in the top league compared to natural disasters. But it could be big. My worry about this is that our response would irrationally large. See Fix “the button” so that a president can’t wreck the world.

    4. No worries, it is so easy for intent to get lost in translation through this medium.

      I think we actually agree on a lot of these issues. Just like you, I know Rome became a very powerful empire after the Senate lost its sway with the people and Julius Caesar marched across the Rubicon with his legion. I’m afraid that the next “crisis” may make 9/11 look like a walk-in-the-park. The question is, how would we respond this time.

      I also saw the piece about “fixing the nuclear trigger.” I agree, especially now that we have someone sitting in the office who clearly has demonstrated poor impulse control among other things. He could bully and bark in the corporate world, but that doesn’t translate to world affairs.

      My bigger concern is some of the brass in the Pentagon or his cabinet who should know better. There was a recent article on the USNI website by some admiral advocating for more provocative displays of naval power off the south China coast. Reminds me of the old men who led the world into the first major world war over an assassination in a small country most people probably couldn’t have identified on a map. When I saw his article, my first thought was someone needs to get the admiral evaluated for fitness for duty. You don’t play chicken with another nuclear armed actor. We tried that once and it almost didn’t end well for the world.

      1. Major McCloud,

        I think we agree on almost all points here.

        “My bigger concern is some of the brass in the Pentagon or his cabinet who should know better.”

        Spot on. For a teriffying look at our past — and perhaps our future — read Virtual JFK: Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived. Results of a symposium of historians discussing the revelations on the tapes of JFK’s meetings.

        In the meetings during the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK was the only rational man in the room. The generals were like rapid dogs eager for atomic war. I wonder how much they have changed since then.

        That is esp worrisome today, since Trump’s national security team is almost all generals (plus a few defense contractors). No alternative perspectives in the room with Trump — who I suspect is easily bullied.

  7. It’s tougher to accept that you were neither good nor bad, but irrelevant in the longer term.

    The US is not the first and probably not the last to invade into Southwest Asia for influence.

    As much as it impacts the Major’s life, it is just a small footnote in a series of bad ideas.

    There were many soldiers with kind hearts that simply did not understand the war.

    The question for Major Sjursen is, “What will you do now?”

    1. Mike,

      You are a philosopher at heart! As you well know, many of those who served in our wars wonder about the purpose to which they were applied — and what was the effect of their sacrafice, and that of those they saw injured, crippled, and killed.

      My son is well versed in military history and 4GW theory, and was long haunted by the futility of his three tours in Helmand. But he took your advice, and moved on.

      I think the major’s words are addressed to the rest of us, especially now that Team Trump leads us into a second (or third, or fifth) round of these mad wars. He reminds us about wars we have almost forgotten. As seen in his post. This, like all posts here about our wars, gets 1/5 of the usual pageviews. We don’t know about our wars, and don’t want to learn. We saw that in Campaign 2016, with neither party having much interest in even mentioning our wars (Trump was a slight exception, lying about his plans).

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