What Makes a Great General?

FP contributors on Tom Ricks' new book.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

This week, FP presents a running discussion of Best Defense blogger Tom Ricks' new book, The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today.

This week, FP presents a running discussion of Best Defense blogger Tom Ricks’ new book, The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today.

Tom’s last two books were deeply reported examinations of the Iraq War. In The Generals, he casts a historical net and finds that the quality of military leadership has declined since the days of Eisenhower and Marshall, as the Army has increasingly failed to punish failure or reward ingenuity.

Initial reviews have been wildly positive. Here’s what Publisher’s Weekly — which awarded Tom his own star — had to say:

“[A] savvy study of leadership. Combining lucid historical analysis, acid-etched portraits of generals from ‘troublesome blowhard’ Douglas MacArthur to ‘two-time loser’ Tommy Franks, and shrewd postmortems of military failures and pointless slaughters such as My Lai, the author demonstrates how everything from strategic doctrine to personnel policies create a mediocre, rigid, morally derelict army leadership… Ricks presents an incisive, hard-hitting corrective to unthinking veneration of American military prowess.”

We’d encourage you all to pick up the book, and stay tuned for this week’s discussion, which will feature a terrific line-up of reviewers, including a few generals.

Thomas Donnelly: The quality of American generals is declining 

James M. Dubik: Does the Army’s system produce the generals the nation needs?

Thomas Keaney: The military can’t look to the past to answer today’s questions.  

Jason Dempsey: The real problem with America’s generals

Robert Killebrew: What would Marshall do?, and a response

Tom Ricks: A response to the book club

By Thomas Donnelly

Surely one of the reasons Barack Obama was reelected as president is that many Americans, and not least our political elites, remain war weary. Even Afghanistan, the “good” war, the “war of necessity,” has faded from public consciousness. The one thing we seem to remember about it is that it’s “on schedule” to end in 2014.

Similarly, our attention to men and women in uniform is fading. We still honor them at ballparks, let them board planes ahead of us — sometimes even before the frequent-flying executives — and are forever “thanking them for their service.” But we’re turning away, getting on with nation-building at home.

Tom Ricks’ new book, The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today, is many things: a deeply considered and researched work of history, an excellent genealogy of the Army’s general officer corps, and a well-told tale. In sum, there are a host of reasons to read the book, more than this short piece can limn or even suggest. But, taken as a whole, The Generals is first and foremost a powerful argument that as a nation and as a polity we should not allow the professional military to retreat behind the camouflage netting. Indeed, now more than ever, civilians ought to concern themselves with the “profession” of arms, and particularly what happens to the U.S. Army.

Like many other professions, the profession of arms involves a set of cultural beliefs handed down from generation to generation but molded by the quirks of strong, paradigmatic personalities. And Ricks lays this out well: the leaders of World War II begat those of Korea and Vietnam, who begat those of the modern All-Volunteer Force and Operation Desert Storm, who in turn begat those of the post-9/11 wars. The field- and company-grade officers of these wars are the future of our military, and the next decade will determine what kind of senior commanders they will be.

Ricks’ central argument — that the quality of Army generalship has declined through the years — is one broadly shared by today’s younger officers. “America’s generals have failed to prepare our armed forces for war and advise civilian authorities on the application of force to achieve the aims of policy,” wrote then- Lt. Col. Paul Yingling in a 2007 Armed Forces Journal article that became a lightning rod for the current debate.

If this charge is true, and I think it is, it is a problem of the first order. Proper civil-military relations are critical to our democracy, particularly one that is also a global power. We can’t go back to the pre-imperial past that produced George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower. Thus Ricks’ remedy for what ails us — holding leaders accountable and relieving them when they fail — strikes me as a necessary but not sufficient condition. There is also a systemic problem with an officer training, education, and selection model designed to produce competent tacticians but indifferent if not hostile to developing strategists. Our officers are much better in battle than at war.

It is said that amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics, and really smart guys, like Tom Ricks, talk personnel. If there were any justice in the worlds of publishing, politics, or policy, this book would outsell either of Ricks’ Iraq books. It would also be a way to truly thank people in uniform for the sacrifices they make.        

Thomas Donnelly is the co-director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

By James M. Dubik

Tom Ricks’s book, The Generals, raises important and challenging questions that deserve debate. In sum, he argues that the nation needs generals who lead campaigns that win wars and in peacetime generals who can prepare for the next war. Rick’s assessment is that since WWII, Army generals have not done well enough in either category. But his arguments are sometimes too narrowly drawn.

Over simplified, the first argument is, if more generals were fired, as in World War II, we’d have better generals and win more wars. Underplayed are the critical role of the civil-military relationship and the impact of the kind of war being fought.

The success of senior wartime generals often depends upon the degree of openness and effectiveness in the civil military relationship. Rick’s discussion of personalities and who should fire whom sometimes obscures this essential fact. Generalship occurs within the boundaries set by strategy and policy. In discourse with political leaders, generals can affect both, but the degree is often limited. Sometimes generals are inadequate; the same is true of political leaders. Both sides in this relationship must be respectful of the role and experience of the other; without it, the probability of wartime success diminishes. In the last decade, this relationship has had more downs than ups.

Additionally, success is relatively straightforward in conventional war, as is the use of military force as the means to that success — so too is generalship. In our current wars, success is much less clear and the means to success necessarily includes both the use of military and non-military forces. Even well-used military forces are insufficient. Any assessment of the performance of America’s non-military elements of power must conclude, with a few exceptions, that our non-military elements — strategic through tactical — have been wanting.

That leads to the second argument in which Ricks raises some fundamental questions: Does the Army’s system produce the generals the nation needs? Does the Army’s “incentive system” create too many risk-averse generals? Are Army generals overly focused on tactics and too rigid in applying doctrine? To what degree did transformation prepare the Army for today’s wars? Are all, or some, Army generals too slow to learn and adapt? What’s the relationship of tactical battlefield performance to success as a general? These questions are fundamental to the Army, for its training, education, and leader development programs produce colonels, and Army systems select the colonels who become generals and the generals who serve as senior leaders.

Questions like Ricks’s have been percolating among the generations that make up the Army’s officer corps — even among those of us retired. All have opinions. A healthy organization is introspective, questions itself, and adapts from what it learns. In my view, the Army is such an organization.  Even so, The Generals provocative contents need serious debate, so that our military and civilian strategic leaders can better serve the nation, together. None will agree with everything in it, but all military professionals and civilians working in the national security arena should read Ricks’ book.

Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik (ret.) is a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War.

By Thomas Keaney

Tom Ricks’s book, The Generals, provides a sweeping look at American generalship — Army generals almost exclusively — done in the style that marked his earlier works. He names names, cites revealing anecdotes, and just as importantly analyzes the factors at work that shaped generations of these officers. It’s a book sure to create controversy, as it details what Ricks sees as a depressing trend in levels of performance and accountability exhibited by American generals since World War II.

General George C. Marshall becomes Ricks’s model for generalship, both for Marshall’s dealings with the U.S. political leadership, mainly Franklin Roosevelt, and for culling the general officer ranks of the U.S. Army to rid the organization of non-performers or those who could not measure up in other ways. Marshall then serves as Ricks’s touchstone through the book while showing in relief how following generations of general officers, even those trained in the World War II tradition, adopted lesser standards than Marshall and others like him. Wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan provide much fodder to support this analysis. And though correct, I think Ricks leans too heavily on the Marshall example to deal with military performance in subsequent conflicts. Marshal’s example cannot provide the answers, since in many cases Marshall would not or could not know the questions. More factors have been at work.

Simply put, comparing the standards and procedures used in World War II in relieving generals of their commands is unfair to the later generations. One problem is with metrics. If the objective is getting quickly to Berlin or Baghdad, shortcomings or failures would tend to be evident, or at least easily measured. Not to excuse the military leadership involved, but in the wars since, for the most part linking objectives with performances has suffered from political uncertainties of what objectives were being sought on the one hand and a military leadership focused too much on operational issues on the other, a brew that came together in a continuing, if at times low level, civil-military conflict over ends and means. In that atmosphere, personal accountability is more diffuse, and suffers as a result. Ricks points out these clashes in rich detail. Standing out most markedly in this regard are the gaps in understanding and respect between the Johnson White House and both the Joint Chiefs and the military leadership in Vietnam, and between Washington and the theater in the Iraq War between 2003 and 2006. The account of the confused dialogue, or its absence, between theater and headquarters is must reading for anyone seeking to understand the depths of these conflicts.

For Ricks, General William DePuy comes off as both savior and villain: savior of the Army post-Vietnam in giving the force a renewed purpose and sense of itself; and villain through his orientation on operational matters to the virtual exclusion of rigorous strategic thinking in Army doctrine and education. As much as that affected the Army, it led to similar effects on the other services’ leadership, curiously in the name of jointness.

The principles of operational art being advocated at the time by General DePuy and others perfectly addressed one aspect of the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols legislation — the requirement to teach joint operations, the integration of all military forces fighting as a team. The immediate answer was to focus teaching at the operational level of war, specifically what was defined as the joint campaign plan.

While an excellent technique for harmonizing the capabilities of each of the military services, campaign planning almost by definition has a concentration on the operational and tactical levels of warfare and far less to the political context of the campaign itself. Thus, Army doctrine on operational art, as Ricks describes, can influence officer education in all the services. Unfortunately, many of the subsequent military operations in which the United States became engaged not only stretched the use of the term campaign but also called for integration not with military forces of other services but with civilian agencies or non-governmental organizations. This was new territory for military leaders.

The Generals ends with a prescription for what Marshall would do in these circumstances. Perhaps, but this generation may have access to better answers. Experience in Iraq an Afghanistan has shown that some generals “get it” more than others, but success in such circumstances came from actions of individual units, not as a theater-wide program. The next step must be a more general reorientation of military education to the strategic context, whether it involves counterinsurgency or air-sea battle.

Thomas Keaney is Associate Director Strategic Studies Program, The Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, and a former facultymember at the National War College.

By Jason Dempsey

A little over two years ago Gen. David Petraeus received the Irving Kristol Award from the American Enterprise Institute. Following the ceremony, columnist David Brooks went home and hand-stitched a “Mission Accomplished” banner for the general in the form of an op-ed in which he breathlessly declared that the military “[had] been transformed in the virtual flash of an eye” — from its Big Army past to a more nimble and nuanced counterinsurgency force.

This victory dance was woefully premature, and other journalists should have seen it as a worrying sign. The military never did break past institutional inertia to fully embrace counterinsurgency. Yet the media, a profession that once decried the “5 O’Clock Follies” in Vietnam, has morphed in a generation into an overly deferential and only superficially informed body, willingly buying into pleasing narratives about the military that correspond little with reality.

Brooks, of course, was not alone in his treatment of the military. The default setting for reporters and the public alike for the past decade has been one of deference. Faced with exceedingly complex conflicts and a lack of clear goals and metrics by which to measure success, combined with a military establishment that is increasingly foreign to the average American, they have found it far easier to express support for the troops and move on with daily life than to try to actually understand what the troops do and where they might be falling short.

For these reasons we should welcome the work of Thomas Ricks, whose reach and timing may finally spur a rigorous and public discussion about the future of the U.S. armed forces. It is unfortunate that the discussion will be clouded with the unfolding details of the moral failures of some of the military’s brightest stars, but if there is a silver lining to this tragedy, it may be a recognition that these men are human and that time is better spent on the finer details of personnel policy than in the risky world of hero worship.

To be sure, there are problems with Ricks’s approach. The book sometimes reads as an uneven collection of war stories, loosely tied together with an argument over the merits of swiftly firing underperforming generals. This is an unfortunately thin reed for carrying the weight of a call for a comprehensive reassessment of military personnel policies. And in choosing this approach, Ricks ultimately misses the opportunity to directly address the fundamental dilemma in the military personnel system, which is that its operational and strategic leaders are drawn from a system in which tactical proficiency is the primary, and often only, focus of officers for the first 20 years of their careers. More importantly however, this book should spur us, military and civilian, to collectively address and integrate the lessons learned from these wars into the way we approach future conflicts.

For the generals in the first half of the book, tactical and operational proficiency were paramount. The tasks facing U.S. leaders in World War II and the Korean War were herculean, but fairly straightforward: defeat the Germans; halt the Chinese onslaught. A focus on previous experience and combat leadership therefore made sense. When Ricks criticizes the Army for sending leaders with little experience in front-line combat into Korea, the reader can only scratch his head in puzzlement at the Army’s decisions.

The Vietnam War and the wars after, however, present a different story. Particularly in Vietnam, the path to victory was not always clear, and Ricks rightfully takes the Army to task for its reliance on “search and destroy” missions when a more nuanced and population-centric approach was called for. It is therefore puzzling that one of the criticisms of Gen. William Westmoreland is that he did not attend enough military schools. Given Ricks’s well-known disdain for the Army’s in-house education system, one is left wondering whether he really believes that more time at Fort Benning would have broadened Westmoreland’s perspective on the war in Vietnam.

It is at this point in Ricks’s book that a basic tension becomes clear. In the epilogue, Ricks highlights the need for generals who are better able to interact with the country’s political leaders. He also wants “adaptive, flexible military leaders” better able to wade into an uncertain security environment and offer more nuanced solutions than “search and destroy.” Unfortunately, there is a tension between this goal and the development of tactical proficiency.

Military leaders have not only not forgotten the lessons of Korea, but often remember these at the expense of all else. The Army is nothing if not tactically proficient, and the strength of Ricks’s book is in highlighting how the combat effectiveness of the Army at the small-unit level has enabled a widespread tolerance for stalemate and the rudderless puttering that has often passed for strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Along with this strength, however, comes the primary weakness of Ricks’s proposed solution. In not directly addressing the primacy of tactical proficiency at all levels of officers’ professional development, Ricks’s proposal that the Army could solve its problems with more frequent firings meets nicely with the definition of insanity. Firing a general unable to grasp the complexities of modern war at the strategic level is not likely to solve the problem when all of his or her possible replacements have spent their careers equally focused on tactics.

To be sure, the Army’s singular focus on developing tactical expertise among its leaders is not the result of ill intent but rather the desire to keep soldiers alive. This concern for soldiers’ lives is something that Army leaders and Ricks notably share, but so long as the purpose of the Army is to fight and win the country’s wars, not merely survive them, tactical proficiency remains a necessary but not sufficient condition for success.

Acknowledging how and why the military has fallen short in moving beyond a focus on tactical proficiency is therefore necessary to improve the ability of the armed forces to appropriately serve the needs of the country. More importantly, we must acknowledge that there are valid arguments for the status quo and that to effectively rebut them one has to move beyond talk of individual heroes and villains to an understanding of the strengths, and inertia, of the Army’s tactical focus on the way the country prepares, or fails to prepare, officers for modern war.

Ricks is correct to point out that a good portion of the Army has already moved past the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, at least intellectually. He also highlights how many senior leaders have recently declared that the Army needs to refocus on the basics, as if a lack of proficiency in small-unit tactics was somehow the primary factor undermining U.S. success in Iraq and Afghanistan. Such declarations, coming on the heels of over a decade of war with muddled results, should bring home the urgency with which a comprehensive discussion of the Army’s future is needed and which this book will hopefully spur. These declarations should also highlight the need for greater participation from the public the Army serves. Institutions don’t turn on a dime and rarely do they transform on their own, despite the wishes of pundits to the contrary.

Jason Dempsey is the author of Our Army: Soldiers, Politics and American Civil-Military Relations and is serving as a combat advisor in Afghanistan. The views presented here are his own.

By Robert Killebrew

When Tom let me read one of the early drafts of his book on generalship, I suggested that he end it with a retrospective on what General Marshall would have made of the current crop of generals and how they are handled by the Army. Here’s my take:

First, I think General Marshall would be generally (no pun intended) pleased with the current crop; they are mainly younger, better educated, and in much better physical condition than the senior officers of his time. Marshall was all about youth in command — in the only book he ever wrote, about his experiences in WWI, he singled out physical endurance as a vital prerequisite for high command — along with a cheerful, optimistic outlook. In that, I think he would be pleased.

He would also be pleased, I think, at the survival of the Army’s service schools — which operate today in the same basic form as they did in his day. He would be a little puzzled, I think, at the large number of civilian and retired military in teaching positions, as teaching at a service school in his day was a real plum, and was a fertile ground for growing future commanders. The idea that the Army’s elaborate training command would be undermanned, or forced to push off instructor duty on retired folks and civilians, would immediately raise his ire.

And here’s where the story gets complicated. In Marshall’s day, there was no clear “pathway to the stars” that officers competed for, or that the Army used to manage the force. Officers served where they were put, and were promoted (or not) based on their performance, not their career attainment — Eisenhower served in a stateside training assignment in WWI, remember, and Bradley guarded tin mines in the American west. Marshall would be baffled by “good” career paths and “bad” paths, and by the elaborate personnel systems designed to specialize and select officers on any basis other than good performance. Ricks’ suggestion that officers be given another chance after relief is only possible in a system like Marshall’s, when the service was expanding and officers were generalists and picked on a best-qualified basis. Today, if an officer stumbles in the shrinking force, there are a dozen more as well-qualified to step into his or her shoes, which makes the Army’s reluctance to dismiss senior officers more puzzling — they are eminently replaceable.

Ricks is right that Army leaders have been overly reluctant to relieve poorly performing senior officers — in fact, the most recent reliefs of senior officers has come from civilian leaders, a thing that Marshall would find an intolerable intrusion on his prerogatives and responsibility. In allowing the civilians to carry the axe, the military leadership has backed away from an essential, core responsibility.

This and other examples have convinced me that there is a greater gulf than just attitudes about relief between Marshall, the founder of the modern Army, and the force today. One example points to the gulf between our attitudes today and Marshall’s stern code. Ricks and others in the academic community have made much of an Army lieutenant colonel who publicly excoriated the Army’s leadership during the confused and bloody days of 2005-2007. Despite this, the officer in question was promoted to colonel and subsequently retired (we retired colonels think that’s a successful military career). In Marshall’s officer corps, though, institutional loyalty had a much higher value. There is a story that Patton, as a guest in Marshall’s home, pressed overmuch for the promotion of a colonel who had criticized some facet of the Army’s mobilization. Marshall laid his fork down and said, roughly, “General Patton, you are a guest in my home. But I speak now as the Chief of Staff. This colonel has ruined himself by criticizing the Army at this difficult time. He will never be promoted. Never speak of this to me again.” If we want to return to an Army with sterner, higher standards, as Tom suggests, then we will have to buy the whole package of a sterner military code and higher, and more restrictive, standards of deportment and institutional loyalty.

Robert Killebrew is a retired military officer and a senior visiting fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

Tom Ricks responds

First, thanks to all who participated. I learned from these discussions. I agree with much of what they wrote, but of course here will focus on our points of disagreement.  

–I agree with Tom Donnelly that it would be good if Americans paid more attention to the competence of our senior military leaders. Unfortunately, as we have just seen, they seem to care more about the sex lives of our generals than the real lives of our soldiers. The real scandal of Iraq was not that the public over-valued David Petraeus, but that it tolerated his three failed predecessors. Apparently mediocrity is acceptable if it keeps its pants on.

–I like and admire retired Lt. Gen. James Dubik, but I disagree with his concluding paragraph on the health of our Army. I am especially worried by the state of its general officer corps. Yes, there are terrific officers like him (his first project since leaving active duty is getting a doctorate in philosophy, by the way) and H.R. McMaster. But there are not enough of them to form a critical mass. They remain outliers, often seen by more conventional officers as “50-pound brains” or even smartasses. I think the majority of Army generals are under-educated conformists who tend to veer toward risk-averse mediocrity, a tendency reinforced by the system of mindless rotation of commanders we have used in our recent wars.   

–Likewise, Tom Keaney is a fine fellow and an astute military analyst, but I think he is too quick to provide an alibi for today’s generals. Yes, it is more difficult to recognize success in small, unpopular, messy wars like Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan than it was in World War II. Nonetheless, it is possible. Matthew Ridgway clearly turned around American fortunes in the Korean War, succeeding where other generals had failed. Creighton Abrams did better in Vietnam than William Westmoreland did, though perhaps not as much better as some people believe. David Petraeus succeeded in his mission in Iraq-he got us out of there-where his three predecessors had failed.

I think Keaney’s sense that the world is just too hard lets off generals like Tommy Franks, who simply didn’t understand his job. Yes, the civilians above him were badly mistaken. But Franks seemed to think it was a good idea to push al Qaeda from Afghanistan (a small, unstable Muslim nation) into Pakistan (a big, unstable Muslim nation with nuclear weapons). Franks also apparently believed that once he had taken the enemy’s capital, he had won-when in fact, that is when the real wars began in both Afghanistan and Iraq. I would conclude from this and other mistakes that the Army had failed to prepare Franks to be a general.   

–Bob Killebrew has every right to invoke his own version of the ghost of George Marshall, especially because he was the guy several years ago who told me I should learn more about Marshall.

But when I interviewed Marshall’s ghost, contrary to Killebrew’s sense, Marshall was not at all pleased with the state of American generalship. Lots of little things puzzled and irked him. Yes, as Bob suspected, he didn’t understand why the Army has neglected professional military education, which should be its crown jewel during peacetime. He also was shocked to see so many retired generals making a bundle in the defense industry, and also endorsing political candidates and using the name of their services while doing so. Both struck Marshal as abuses of the profession.

But what bothered him most, the old white-haired general said in a slow, steady, quiet voice, was the failure of four-star generals to carry out their roles in dealing with their civilian superiors. He was shocked by the failure of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to speak truth to power on several occasions, most notably during the Vietnam War and during the planning for the invasion of Iraq. Indeed, he almost lost his temper when discussing how Gen. Richard Myers allowed himself to be pushed around by Donald Rumseld. “How can you go to war without a strategic rationale?” he wondered. 

–Jason Dempsey, like many readers of the book, thinks that my emphasis on relief is too simple. The problem, he says, is rather that the entire Army general officers corps is overly focussed on tactical issues, and so if one small thinker were ousted, he simply would be replaced by another. (This is my interpretation of what Dempsey wrote, but not his words.) So, he believes, some other sort of remedy is necessary. I disagree. I think that a few well-placed, undisguised removals would encourage the others, as it did with the peers of Admiral Byng.

But where I think where Dempsey and I really part ways is in our assessment of the adaptiveness of others-that is, the raw material of our generals and their successors. I think that there are many intelligent, determined, ambitious Army officers who would get the message that the ability to think and adapt is valued by the institution, and is the route to generalship. A little accountability could go a long way.

In other words, relief should not be seen as an end in itself, but rather as one the two most basic tools of personnel management-hiring and firing. I say, reward success, punish failure, and promote the promising, and you will get more of the adaptive generals that our nation needs — and our soldiers deserve.   


By Robert Killebrew

Tom’s conversation with General Marshall was after mine, and I don’t want to go back to the general — patience has its limits. But I stand by what I wrote: in large terms, he was pleased that the current crop of American generals is younger, fitter, and better-educated than generals in his day.  As I said in the first post, Marshall was concerned with youth and fitness in senior officers, and while that may not seem like much to an academic, Marshall knew that the physical demands of war would eventually overwhelm a brainy but slobby officer. Don’t overlook this point — it’s more important than it seems, as Marshall knew.

I do think that Tom overlooked a point about which he, I, and General Marshall are in complete agreement — that generals in the early days of the Iraq-Afghan period hesitated to speak truth to power, and that — by inaction — they allowed politicians to intrude in what is rightfully the military leadership’s responsibility. The most shameful example in recent history was the disgrace of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, over which the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Gen. Richard Myers, who had foreknowledge and took no action) should have resigned, and the Army commander on the ground, Lt. General Rick Sanchez, should have been fired very publicly. Instead, after some delay we reduced a National Guard brigadier to colonel and court-martialed a pregnant private first class. That, coming on top of General Tommy Franks’ incompetence, was probably the nadir of American generalship.

General Marshall had little patience with trimmers; the heart and soul of officership is the acceptance of responsibility, and in that we should wait and see how the present crop of leaders — the post-Franks generation, who were colonels when these wars started — measures up. So far, the results are hopeful.

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