in: Character, Military, Podcast

• Last updated: September 30, 2021

Podcast #436: The Worth of War

You’ve probably heard that Edwin Starr song “War, What is It Good For?” Well, my guest today makes the provocative argument that war is in fact good for a lot of things. His name is Benjamin Ginsberg. He’s a professor of political science at John Hopkins University and in his book, The Worth of War, he argues that while war certainly is terrible in the death and destruction it wreaks, it also gives rise to many of the political structures, technologies, and conveniences that society benefits from.

We begin our conversation discussing how war is what gave rise to many things we take for granted, including nation-states, engineering, leadership strategies, and large-scale organizing. We also discuss many of the life-saving medical advances that have been made thanks to war, including sanitation, vaccinations, trauma surgery, and prosthetics. Professor Ginsberg then makes the case that war is the ultimate test of rationality, as it unsparingly eliminates bad ideas and bad thinking. We then discuss how war has counterintuitively advanced civil liberties, like voting, in the 19th and 20th centuries.

This is a thought-provoking conversation that’s going to give you plenty of grist to consider and discuss with your friends.

Show Highlights

  • How war defines the very definition of nationhood 
  • The origin meaning and purpose of engineering
  • War and rationality 
  • The irony of the medical advances that have come because of war 
  • How warfare has actually reduced brutality in some ways 
  • How society changes in periods of peacetime 
  • The illusion of the disconnectedness we have from war in our modern world 
  • Is true peace even possible? 

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

Book cover of "The Worth of War" by Benjamin Ginsberg.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Now, you’ve probably heard that Edwin Starr song, War, What is it Good for? Edwin said, “Absolutely nothing.” My guest today makes the provocative argument that war is in fact good for a lot of things. His name is Benjamin Ginsberg. He’s a professor of political science at John Hopkins University.

In his book, The Worth of War, he argues that war, war is certainly is terrible in the death and distraction it reeks. It also gives rise to need the political structures, technologies and conveniences that society benefits from. We begin our conversation discussing how wars like gave rise to many things we take for granted in the modern world, including nation states, engineering, leadership strategies, and large scale organizing.

We also discuss many of the life saving medical advances that have been made thanks to war, including sanitation, vaccinations, trauma surgery, and prosthetics. Professor Ginsberg then makes the case that war is the ultimate test of rationality, as it unsparingly eliminates bad ideas and bad thinking. He gives some examples of that. We then discuss how war has counterintuitively advanced civil liberties like voting, during the 19 and 20 century.

This is a thought provoking conversation that’s going to give you plenty of grease to consider and discuss with your friends, after it’s over. Make sure to check our show notes at All right, Benjamin Ginsberg, welcome to the show.

Ben Ginsberg: Delighted to be with you.

Brett McKay: So, there’s that song that we felt we all heard, War, What is Good for? Absolutely Nothing. But you got a book out called The Worth of War, arguing, no, actually war is good for some things. What got you thinking about the benefits of war to a society? ‘Cause that’s a pretty provocative thing to think about.

Ben Ginsberg: Yeah, well, actually, there was that bumper sticker, war is not the answer, and I thought, well, it probably depends on the question. War is actually the answer to the great questions of politics. Statehood, for example, which states will exist. The states that exist today are the results of a thousand year long process, which was primarily based on the ability to wage war. Those states that weren’t able to wage war successfully, or weren’t willing to engage in warfare, they no longer exist.

This idea that we should always give peace a chance, that war isn’t worth anything. Well, if we succumbed to that illusion, there’s little doubt whatsoever, that the United States of America would, in a relatively short order, cease to exist. War is also the answer to the question of who will occupy what territory. There isn’t a single square inch of territory on the face of the earth that didn’t use to belong to somebody else.

North America once belonged to sets of Native American tribes. It’s occupied by the descendants of the white settlers and other immigrants, as a result of war. The Native Americans were defeated and driven out. A large part of the United States, we took by war from Spanish settlers, who had previously taken it by force, from Native American groups like the Incas and the Aztecs, and what have you.

Look at the history of any square inch of territory on the face of the earth, and what you will see is the result of centuries of warfare. I’m going to assume that 500 years from now, or even less, some of the states that currently exist, and some of the territory they currently hold, will have gone elsewhere. War also decides who is going to wield power within a territory.

If you take the history of the United States, that question, the large question was settled by wars. The revolutionary war, the civil war. Only in the aftermath of those wars did the survivors discuss minutia of territorial settlement. So in my view, was is the answer. That bumper sticker is wrong. War is the answer to the most important, the largest questions of political life.

Now, we don’t like that. We, Americans, in particular like to think that everything can be discussed. That all problems can be resolved through peaceful and cheerful discussion. But unfortunately that’s not true. In the course of doing my research, I really only found one group, one group that was absolutely true to pacifists principles. One group, and these were the Moriori of the Chatham Islands.

The Moriori were, by religion and by custom, totally pacifistic. Well, their little island was invaded by the Taranaki Maori, and the Moriori refused to fight, and the Maori unfortunately killed and ate them. That to me is one of the lessons, one of the unfortunate lessons of the real world. The world as it is, not as we would like it to be, and then the world as it is, those who are unwilling or unable to fight, get killed and eaten.

Brett McKay: Besides answering questions of statehood and territories, you also argue that a lot of other advancements in civilization, art, technology, philosophy, happened during times of war. We often think this idea that intuitively makes sense. If we’re in a time of peace, that’s when all these innovation is going to happen. But you say, no, actually if you look back at human history, when a lot of the innovations happened in human history, that civilization was embroiled in warfare. Any examples of that?

Ben Ginsberg: Well, going back to ancient times, engineering, the term engineering referred to the construction of military machinery. The ancient Greeks were the masters of engineering. They invented many of the engineering principles that are still with us today. The wrench, the pulley, the hose, the crane, and these were invented to power engines of war. The Romans cheerfully borrowed all of these things, improved on them, and conquered a big chunk of the world.’

The Romans were especially impressed during the famous Siege of Syracuse. Syracuse, had among its citizens, famous Greek mathematician and inventor, a fellow named Archimedes. Archimedes built a variety of devices that were used to keep the Romans at bay. The famous claw of Archimedes, which was a device that on a series of levers and pulleys, could reach down from the cliff into the harbor below, and pull Roman warships out of the harbor, drop them and dash them against the rocks.

Now, the Romans were incredibly impressed by this, and Roman soldiers were ordered to capture this fellow and not to harm him, because the Romans wanted to put him to work. Well, unfortunately, one soldier did kill Archimedes, but nevertheless, the Romans made use of these principles for their own weapons. Moreover, the wrench, the pulley, the hose, the crane, the screw, these became important factors in civilian economies of all early states, and continue to be important today.

You know, ships, all of the mechanisms that we use for farming, machines of all sorts depend upon these Greek military inventions. Other modern day principles that owe their origins to warfare would include the idea of bureaucracy. Now, we may not like bureaucracy, particularly, I don’t. But it necessary to keep the world moving. Bureaucracy was initially developed as a mechanism for keeping armies together.

Bureaucracy derives from military personnel management, from military training, logistics. The first bureaucracies were charged with organizing military forces. In fact, the Romans, one of their great innovations was the bureaucratization of military leadership. In the ancient world, an army was led by an individual, a prince, a king, and Alexander the Great, who rode out at the head of his forces.

Well, if that individual was killed, sometimes the army would collapse. The Romans bureaucratized military leadership. They divided their legions into a variety of different portions, and each portion was led by an officer, and those officers collectively provided the leadership of a legion. Instead of one single general, upon whose faith their hold or depended, the Romans bureaucratized military efforts to great advantage.

Of course, bureaucracy is the mechanism we use to run all civilian and military and civil government operations today. Bureaucracy is a nuisance, but it is the most efficient form of organization. Or if we take the obvious example, technology. Many, if not most of the technologies, upon which we depend today, were developed for military uses. Sonar, radar, the internet, microwave, nuclear power, robotics, microelectronics.

All these were developed because states saw military advantages to be derived that way, and invested large sums of money into what previously had been just theories. Usually war doesn’t bring theories, but it does produce applications, technologies, and though initially, these are used for warfare. Sooner or later, these become drivers of the civilian economy.

The other day, I flew out a jet aircraft. Well, jets, as everyone knows, were developed first by the Germans, and then copied by the Americans, the Russians and others, to use in military aircraft. The idea that war doesn’t lead anywhere, is just false. War is terrible, but we have to look at squarely in the eye, and ask, what is there to be learned from it. I would also add that the most important lesson of war is rationality.

It’s very conventional to see war as irrational. Why would people do such a terrible thing to one another? But the great principle of warfare is rationality. Let me refer listeners to the great Greek historian, Thucydides, who wrote the history of the Peloponnesian wars. Now, Thucydides in one of his portions, sometimes called the Melian Dialogue, discusses what happened when the Athenian army landed on the island of Melos. Little island in Metrium.

The Melians didn’t want the Athenian invaders, and the Athenians said, “Look, we’re not here to bother you. We’re not interested in your island. We are just interested in constructing a naval base, and we’re not going to bother you in any way.” Well, the Melians said, “No, you’ve got to get out of here. We’ll fight.” The Athenians said, “Look, our army is ten times as large as yours. What’s the point of fighting when we’re not going to hurt you anyway?”

Well, the Melians said, “Your army may be larger, but our cause is just, and we know the gods will support us.” The Athenians said, “Well, you know, we are second to none in our reverence for the gods, there’s no question. However, it’s been our observation that the gods tend to favor the larger army.” Well, the Melians wouldn’t listen. Attacked the Athenians forces, and were outed. Thucydides draws a lesson from this story. Thucydides says, “War is a stern teacher.”

And what it teaches is to think rationally. If you can’t think rationally, chances are you’re going to be defeated, and possibly destroyed. Thucydides says this lesson learned in war often is internalized by warring cultures. They learn to think rationally. If we move forward in time a little bit, we can find many such examples. The Lakota Sioux people, Americans are familiar with this, the Lakota, in the 19 century, became convinced that a series of religious rituals would protect them from the bullets of Calvary then.

They danced something called the Ghost Dance, and then wore ghost shirts, which were, if properly sanctified, were alleged to turn aside bullets. Well, it didn’t quite work out. It didn’t turn aside bullets. The result was the destruction of the Lakota at the hands of the U.S. Calvary. Again, they didn’t think rationally, and as a result, were destroyed. Or consider World War II. Why didn’t the Germans win? The Germans were on the verge of victory.

German tanks were at the gates of Moscow, and the Russians seemed utterly unable to defend themselves for a time. Well, something happened. First, Stalin, who was just as crazy as Hitler, retreated into his Dasha. Didn’t speak to anyone, and when he came out after a couple of weeks, he was a changed man, and called for Marshall Zhukov, and turned the army over to Zhukov.

Stalin had decided to think straight. Hitler, on the other hand, was never able to overcome the lenses, or the blinders of Nazi ideology. Here, he had an army which needed food and provisions, to be obtained in the Ukraine. At the same time, because of Nazi ideology, he had forces brutalizing the Ukrainian peasants, upon whom the army would depend for food and provisions. It made no sense, and contributed to the logistical downfall of the Vanhert.

Or one might say, chasing out of Germany all the physicists, who then developed all the Jewish physicists, who then built the Atom bomb for the Americans, also made no sense. Here, Thucydides would have understood. Thucydides said, “War is a stern teacher.” Stalin was willing to learn the lesson. Hitler was not, and Hitler was defeated. That is the ultimate lesson of warfare.

War teaches you to think straight or else, if you can’t think straight, you’re not likely to be around later, to talk about it.

Brett McKay: Right, ’cause it’s the ultimate competition. We’re all …

Ben Ginsberg: Ultimate competition.

Brett McKay: Right. Going back to the benefits, the technological advances that come from warfare. I think, a lot of people don’t realize this, but a lot of like medical advancements come from warfare. Like saving life comes from the lessons we learned in war.

Ben Ginsberg: Yeah, that’s ironic. Many medical advances, including the use of antibiotics came about because of military needs. Also many surgical techniques that were used for many years thereafter, were learned, or at least honed in military surgical hospitals, in front line, just behind the front lines, absolutely true.

The use of blood for transfusions, various blood products, all of this came because of military necessity, and then became major factors in saving lives among civilians. It’s ironic. At the cost of life, we learn how to save life.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I think also sanitation …

Ben Ginsberg: Sanitation, absolutely.

Brett McKay: … was another big one. I think in the recent wars we’ve been experiencing in the United States, in the Middle East, like prosthetics have advanced considerably because of all of the IEDs, which, I mean, I’m not saying this is like, oh, so great. People lost limbs, but it’s terrible, but as a result of that, other people benefit from the advancements in prosthetics.

Ben Ginsberg: Absolutely, this is what I keep coming back to, war is terrible. War is horrible. Everyone who has ever been in a war knows that. On the other hand, war is something that we humans engage in all the time, and we need to look at it carefully, to understand it, and to see how our society is shaped by warfare. Yeah, the truth is that war has secondary effects that produce, often, great nations, great cultures, and enormous scientific advances.

It’s no accident that the great imperial powers that waged war all the time also became centers of science, centers of engineering, and even centers of culture. Look at the United States. No country has waged war more frequently than the United States of America. We like to think of ourselves as very peaceful, but we go to war a lot. By some counts, we’ve gone to war more than almost anyone else in recent history.

At the same time, we’ve become a great center of science and engineering, culture people might argue, but certainly science and engineering, and a lot of that science and engineering derives from our military efforts. Right now, advances in robotics and microelectronics are coming about because of inventions. The drone, for example, invented for military uses.

Brett McKay: And also artificial intelligence is the next, from what I read there.

Ben Ginsberg: Absolutely, artificial intelligence. What will be next? I don’t know, but there’s sort of no limit to this kind of forced incubation. In the absence of war, what often happens is that societies become complacent. Things are good enough. The people who are selling and producing products of some particular sort, are happy enough with them. But war stresses everything. Things that seem to be okay in a peace time world, turn out not to be so good in the competition of warfare.

Aircraft construction. Well, propeller aircraft were pretty good. Nobody needed to replace them. Jets are better. The transition from propeller to jet came about because of the intensive military competition, because of the World War II. War is terrible. War is awful. But war also has a number of consequences. The modern world, for better or worse, is the product of warfare, and the things that we take for granted are often results of warfare.

Brett McKay: You mentioned, we move away from sort of like technology, very visceral technology, but you also mentioned bureaucracy is a type of technology that warfare developed. But you also argue in the book, conceptions of leadership, organization that we have in the civilian world. Whether you’re in university, or business, like warfare helped refine those ideas of what we’re using today.

Ben Ginsberg: Absolutely, and also our contemporary science of planning. Today we plan before we act. Planning has become quite an important profession, both in civilian and military applications. No corporation would do much of anything without planning. Planning derives from military necessity. The great writers on warfare, Clausewitz, Kautilya, Sun Tzu, these individuals in their writings emphasize the importance of planning.

Both Kautilya, and Sun Tzu, Kautilya was an Indian strategist of the ancient world, Sun Tzu, a Chinese strategist. Both say that the commander who enters into a war without a plan is a fool, and is going to be defeated. A commander who enters a war with a very well conceived plan, which takes into account the capabilities of the enemy, its own capabilities, that individual is likely to be victorious.

Now, it seems obvious, but absent of warfare, planning was not something in which people habitually engaged. Planning was important because, it became important because it kept your civilization alive in warfare. You had to plan what you were going to do. Again, if we lived in a world where no one was violent, it would be wonderful. We would probably be happier and more secure.

But we don’t live in such a world. We live in a world where some people are violent, and we have to be prepared to be responsive, and as a result, we learn certain things, that should not be ignored, because they evolved from military applications.

Brett McKay: One of the other counterintuitive arguments you make is that war is something that is enacted by states. But you argue that warfare, throughout time, has actually reduced state brutality. How is it that, like this most brutal of thing, warfare actually reduces state brutality?

Ben Ginsberg: Yeah, that to me is a very interesting phenomenon. When a state engages in war, it has to think about the loyalty of its citizens. It’s asking people to fight. With the advent of mass armies in the 19 century, governments had to reach out to ordinary folks and persuade them to be loyal, to be willing to fight. When armies were small, when they consisted of a small of mercenary forces, or others, this wasn’t an issue.

However, with the advent of mass armies, which in modern times came about during the French Revolution, governments had to think seriously about popular support. After the French Revolution, France was prostate. Its economy was shattered. The army, which had been the largest in Europe was scattered, had no officers. The other armies, the other states of Europe, saw an opportunity to pick of pieces of French territory, so a series of coalitions, led by the British, attacked France from all sides.

At first, the French couldn’t defend themselves. Then the government hit upon something novel. It called upon the citizens of France to come forward to defend the fatherland. Now, most of the people living in France didn’t know they were citizens. They were subjects of the king, or subjects of some local noble man. But this idea of citizenship, the idea that they had a stake in the nation, this had a powerful effect.

It brought about, through a mix of voluntarism and conscription, the so called, Levee en masse, a construction of a huge army. Hundreds of thousands of poorly trained soldiers, poorly trained under-armed, but enthusiastic. These soldiers received political indoctrination. They were told that they were citizens. That they were members of this society, and they had something to fight for.

When this army appeared on the field, the Austrians and the Persians, and the British, sort of laughed at it, because they saw lightly armed rebel. But these soldiers were actually willing to die for their country. They overwhelmed the opposition. All the other governments of Europe saw that they either had to follow the French example, or they would simply disappear from the face of the earth. They’d be overwhelmed by the French.

The other European regimes set about turning their own subjects into citizens. One way they did that was through the creation of schools, where among, in addition to the 3 Rs, they were taught citizen, they taught their kids citizenship. Later on, systems of public welfare evolved. First, in the form of benefits for veterans, and then social benefits for everyone.

Subsequently, voting rights were seen as a mechanism for more thoroughly linking ordinary folks to the state. Now, we’ve all heard the slogan, one man, or today they say, one person, one vote. The origins of this slogan are a little bit different. The slogan originated in Sweden, and the full slogan was, one man, one vote, one gun. The idea being, that the right to vote, would tie citizens to the government, and make them willing to fight.

During World War I, Britain and Canada gave women the right to vote. But it was very limited. Women who had relatives in the military services were given the right to vote, for the duration of the law. Well, they never took it back, but the idea was again, this notion that giving people, here, giving women the right to vote, would help persuade them to encourage their loved ones to fight.

A lot of aspects of our society, than in which governments treat citizens well, voting right, public welfare programs, today health benefits, etc, all of these derive from military necessity. When governments needed people to fight. They found that citizens were more effective than reluctant, or unwilling mercenaries. Now, that should lead us to think about the contemporary period when powers in other governments, are shifting away from citizen soldiers, back to much smaller professional armies.

Nowadays, wielding weapons such as drones, and increasingly robotic weapons of various sorts, that don’t require ordinary folks to be involved. You may remember this, but I recall that right after the 9/11 terror attacks, president Bush addressed the nation, and everyone was expecting a sort of Churchillian speech, blood, sweat, toil, and tears. But you remember what president Bush said, he said, “Don’t worry about anything, we have it all under control. Everybody should go shopping.”

I asked my wife, “Do you think it would be to go to Macy’s, or do we have to go to Neiman’s?” What I saw here was that in the modern times, the military didn’t really need citizen participation anymore. I wonder how this will play out over the next century or so. If you don’t need citizens to fight, you’re under no obligation to treat them as well, as they were treated during the period of mass armies. That’s something to watch.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I’m curious too. Do you think, in sort of your research of this, does living in a peaceful time do something to the psyche, or you can call it, soul of the sight, it’s like make it flaccid? Does it make it complacent? Do people kind of get, I don’t know, morally lazy, I guess, is the word I’m looking for.

Ben Ginsberg: Well, when people become accustomed to whatever it is that they experience, and when we live in a peaceful time, people stop remembering that the peace we experience is the result of war. Had the United States and Russia and Britain not defeated Germany, the world would be very, very different. In some respects, the world that we live in is still a world that resulted from that great military victory. But we forget.

We think that peace is self perpetuating, and that we should at all costs avoid war. Now, war is to be avoided when possible. But we have to recognize that war eventually overtakes us. Eventually, we have to be prepared to fight. Now, the United States has compartmentalized fighting. We have a military that is divorced from civilian society. We don’t have an army of citizen soldiers anymore. We have a professional army.

President Nixon worked to create a professional army, because he thought professional soldiers could more easily be used. Remember during the Vietnam war, the New York Times would always run these multi-page spreads, faces of the fallen, and we would all pour through these pictures, recognizing people we knew. This was a very, this designed to increase popular opposition to the war.

Well, during the Gulf Coast, the New York Times did the same thing, but most people I know, didn’t find anyone they knew in these pages, and as a political ploy just didn’t have the same impact. Well, looking beyond the politics of it, what this said to me is that we’ve compartmentalized our wars being undertaken by professional soldiers, and military hardware, so the rest of us can live as though war doesn’t exist.

To most Americans, war is something that they read about, or turn the page if they don’t want to read about. Americans live in a, I would say, an artificial reality, in which their world is peaceful, and there is conflict somewhere else. Well, I hate to say this, but sooner or later, this illusion is likely to be shattered. At that point, we have to refresh our memory of Thucydides.

Thucydides says, “War is a stern teacher.” And if decades of peace haven’t had the effect of allowing us to forget the lesson, we better learn it damn quickly, or we will join the millions and others who bore in the more eerily, who refused to learn that lesson. War is always with us. The idea that we should always give peace a chance. Well, it’s a nice idea. It’s a very pleasant idea, but that’s not what the world that we live in is about.

We don’t live in a peaceful world. We can’t allow that illusion of peace to make us forget that the peace we live in, was produced by war, can only be protected by war, and sooner or later, is going to be shattered by war, whether we like it or not.

Brett McKay: I’m curious, all these benefits of war. I guess you’re not advocating to be jingoist, and like start wars.

Ben Ginsberg: No, absolutely not.

Brett McKay: But it’s just like be ready for it, and also …

Ben Ginsberg: Be ready, it’s going to happen. There are several kinds of theories about how you can get rid of war. There are two main philosophers, whose ideas have influenced thinking about how to bring about peace. Those would be Immanuel Kant, and Thomas Hobbes, both 19 century political theorists, one 18 century, the other a 19 century political theorist. They believed that war could be expunged from the face of the earth. Kant produced what is sometimes known as his theory of perpetual peace.

Kant observed that democracies didn’t seem to go to war. At least not against one another. His observation led him to assert that if the whole world consisted of democracies, there would be no more. Remember during the Bush administration, people made this argument, and this is one of the arguments in favor of going to war in the Middle East. If we turned all of the Middle Eastern nations into a democracy, we would bring about peace in that region.

This seems like a nice idea, but turning the world into democracies, especially if they don’t want to be democracies would seem to require an awful lot of war, as we discovered in the Middle East. Moreover, it’s not clear that Kant was right. The United States of America, which is still the world’s premier democracy, is also a very war-like country. So, I’m not sure that the Kantians have it right.

Then there was Hobbes. Hobbes and his book, The Leviathan, argued that war was a product of the absence of sovereignty. He observed that within a country where there was a sovereign power, there was no war, or seldom would there be war. Whereas in a world of sovereign powers, they warred against each all the time. Hobbes idea was the Leviathan, a state that encompassed all the nations of the earth, and would thereby banish war, because there wouldn’t be a bunch of competing nations.

Well, this idea also has its problems. One is that, it would require centuries of warfare to achieve the existence of one sovereign, and then that sovereign, in order to prevent war, to prevent violence within its territory, would probably have to be quite despotic. I hear that North Korea is a very peaceful place, but it keeps several million people incarcerated and brutalizes them, so it’s not clear that this is a good trade off. In fact, most people prefer violence to totalitarianism.

The two main philosophical principles that people bandy about for ending war, both have their serious limitations. I say that the best we can do is be prepared. The best we can do is understand that war is a fact of life on this planet, and that so long as it is, we need to be prepared for it, and be prepared to the extent possible to gain whatever benefits come about because of it.

Brett McKay: Well, Ben, is there some place people can go to learn more about the book?

Ben Ginsberg:, the source of all knowledge.

Brett McKay: The source of knowledge, right. Well, Benjamin Ginsberg, this has been a great conversation. Thanks for coming on.

Ben Ginsberg: Delighted to do it.

Brett McKay: My guest here has been Benjamin Ginsberg. He’s the author of the book, The Worth of War. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. Also check at show notes at, where you’ll find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic. Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website, at

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