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Comparison of Catch-22 and Dr. Strangelove

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As Daniel R. White writes in Nietzsche at the Altar: Situating the Devotee, “To laugh at the literal behavior of other characters in the social drama, is to change the truth value of what those characters do so as to undermine its seriousness, its claim to veracity, to authority, and so to call it into question.” According to White, once we are able to laugh at something, we disarm it and become free to question its authority and reject it. The effect of laughter White describes is the effect Joseph Heller and Stanley Kubrick intend to evoke in their respective satires, Catch-22 and Dr. Strangelove. The context of war in each of these works has caused many critics to classify it in the war genre. This classification, however, is mistaken because the worlds Heller and Kubrick depict are not horrific on account of war, but rather because individuals are subjected to the arbitrary authority of an impersonal and omnipotent bureaucracy that neither understands nor cares about them. In Catch-22, Heller portrays the bureaucracy through the eyes of his protagonist, Yossarian, who realizes that the control the bureaucracy, represented by his ambitious and impersonal superior officers, exercises over his life is arbitrary. In Dr. Strangelove, the bureaucracy is represented by General Ripper, who orders a massive nuclear strike that, if successful, will set off the Soviet Doomsday Device and create a nuclear holocaust, and General Turgidson, who urges President Muffley to commit fully to nuclear war. The individual struggling against the bureaucracy is Mandrake, who challenges Ripper’s authority and works to avert the impending nuclear disaster. That bureaucracy is the subject of examination and criticism in each novel is further evidenced in an evaluation of the satirical techniques employed. Through their depiction of a bureaucratic system in which individuals are completely subject to the arbitrary authority of their detached superiors and their satirical techniques, Kubrick and Heller induce individuals to recognize the horror and to laugh at the absurdities, not of war, but of the bureaucratic system they are seeking to “call into question.”

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While many critics have categorized Catch-22 and Dr. Strangelove as war genre works, this categorization is fundamentally flawed because neither work contains the salient attributes of works that fit this classification. In War and the Novelist: Appraising the American War Novel, Peter G. Jones observes, “Collectively the [war genre] books emphasize individual reconciliation to the ordeal of combat and adjustment to the general pressures of war, recording immediate responses and varieties of accommodation” (Jones 4). Based on this definition, derived from analyses of the most widely recognized war genre works, the thematic similarity is their focus on the psychological effects of combat on the individual and the means through which the individual copes with that stress. The absence of vivid descriptions of combat indicates that neither Catch-22 nor Dr. Strangelove is about “individual reconciliation to the ordeal of combat.” Instead, both Heller and Kubrick focus on portraying the characters who comprise the bureaucracy. As Heller himself said, “‘I wasn’t interested in the war in Catch-22. I was interested in the personal relationships in bureaucratic authority’” (Merill 16). Thus, the horror of the worlds depicted by Kubrick and Heller arises not from war but from the fact that individuals are completely subjected to the arbitrary authority of an impersonal, omnipotent, and inaccessibly bureaucracy.

In Dr. Strangelove, individuals are subjected to the authority of impersonal and arbitrary bureaucrats whose insulation from the realities of war renders them incapable of comprehending the implications of their actions. In Dr. Strangelove, General Ripper and General Turgidson are able to advocate nuclear war because of their detachment from the war. General Turgidson’s reliance on the Big Board, a computerized screen in the war room, to gauge progress emphasizes his insulation from the emotional realities of war. As Randy Rasmussen notes, “General Turgidson’s beloved Big Board is a glorified movie screen that provides him with a simplified, abstract, and manageable impression of nuclear war quite different from the messy realities we encounter outside its borders” (Rasmussen 3). For Turgidson, war is nothing more than a game and the soldiers are not human lives, but numbers. Turgidson’s failure to grasp the realities of war becomes evident when he and the other advisers rejoice after the Big Board shows the bombers responding to the recall code. In fact, the rejoicing is premature because the Big Board does not reflect the reality experienced by Major Kong and his crew aboard a slightly damaged, but still airborne B-52 bomber that has not received the recall code. Turgidson’s detachment from the realities of war allow him to advocate total commitment, “‘I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops – depending on the breaks’” (Maland 708). Turgidson is willing to sacrifice a few million people because he has no personal connection to them and is incapable of envisioning them as humans. This incident allows Kubrick to successfully show the inherent problem with bureaucracy, which is that because its members are detached and lack a personal connection to the individuals whose lives they affect, they cannot conceive of the implications of their advocacies.

Like Turgidson, General Ripper advocates nuclear war because he is insulated from the realities of war. Throughout Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick uses a variety of camera techniques to emphasize that General Ripper is a typical bureaucrat who controls affairs and individuals from a distance. Prior to introducing Ripper for the first time, Kubrick films Captain Mandrake working hard in a bustling room with other people. Kubrick then cuts to Ripper, who is framed sitting alone behind a desk. The series of cuts between Ripper and Mandrake that follow serve to contrast Mandrake, who experiences the war somewhat directly, and Ripper, who is distant and insulated. In shutting the blinds on his office window, Ripper symbolically severs his last connection to the outside world. As Rasmussen notes, “shielded from…the ordeal of his troops by the blinded windows, he is able to sustain his illusion of a justified nuclear war” (Rasmussen 25, 26). While the troops experience the war on a personal level because they are the ones who are engaged in combat and risking their lives, Ripper experiences the war from behind his desk. Ripper is not personally affected by the war, and thus, cannot comprehend the “ordeal of his troops.” It is Ripper’s lack of understanding of the effects of his actions and detachment that permit him to order, support and justify the nuclear strike.

The predicament in Dr. Strangelove, then, is not the war itself, but rather the bureaucratic system that allows detached, impersonal individuals to wield absolute authority over the lives of their subordinates to whom they cannot relate. The extent of Ripper’s authority over Burpleson Airforce base personnel becomes evident when Ripper confiscates all privately owned radios. By confiscating the radios, Ripper severs their connection to the outside world and the chain of command above him. Kubrick thus sets up a microcosm of bureaucratic society in which individuals report only to their direct superiors and are denied access to the chain of command above their superiors. Because Ripper’s power is unchecked, he is able to control and shape the perceptions of his subordinates. As Rasmussen notes, “From inside his ivory tower, General Ripper imposes his fictional view of the outside world on all base personnel through the mechanism of an intercom. His voice rings godlike through Burpleson while subordinates execute his orders” (Rasmussen 14). Ripper announces that the Soviets have launched a nuclear attack that has crippled Washington and orders the Burpleson security troops to seal off the base. Ripper’s control is so encompassing that even when the troops see that the advancing army is wearing American uniforms, the security troops accept Ripper’s word as truth and determine that the uniforms must be stolen. The harm of bureaucracy is evident as the Burpleson security troops are forced to suppress their own thoughts and senses to obey the order of their superior officer. Thus, Kubrick shows how the bureaucratic system causes individuals to lose control of their own lives and become subjected to the whims of their detached superiors.

The harmful effects of the hierarchical structure of bureaucracy and the extent to which individuals are rendered powerless is further evident in the experiences of Mandrake. Mandrake discovers that Ripper has exceeded his authority, but he is powerless to do anything because it is unacceptable for a subordinate to challenge a superior. Even when Ripper admits to Mandrake that the Soviets have not attacked, Mandrake must “maintain a formal appearance of respect for the General” (Rasmussen 16). Kubrick depicts the power imbalance in the relationship by filming Ripper with an extreme low angle close-up that makes him appear larger and more powerful. Mandrake’s powerlessness becomes evident as Ripper uncovers his pistol, thereby asserting his power and authority to restore the hierarchical order. Even when Ripper has committed suicide and Mandrake has deciphered the recall code, Mandrake cannot avert the disaster because he encounters Colonel “Bat” Guano of the U.S. Army. When Mandrake explains the situation to him, Guano “finds it…inconceivable that an individual…of such modest military rank has any business talking to the highest government authority” (39). In the bureaucratic system, of which Guano is a part, it is unthinkable that a subordinate, such as Mandrake, would have access to the president. While Mandrake ultimately succeeds in contacting the president, his trials emphasize the futility of protest in, as well as inaccessibility of, the bureaucratic structure. The expectation of obedience leaves disaffected individuals like Mandrake with no recourse. Thus, the problem in the world Kubrick depicts is not the war itself, but the extent to which the bureaucratic system renders the individual powerless to control his own life or effect change.

Similarly to Mandrake, Yossarian’s predicament in Catch-22 arises from the distant and impersonal nature of the bureaucracy conducting the war. In Catch-22, the bureaucrats conducting the war experience the war through aerial photographs, an impersonal medium. When discussing an upcoming mission, Colonel Korn explains, “‘we don’t care about the roadblock…Colonel Cathcart wants to come out of this mission with a good, clean aerial photograph he won’t be ashamed to send through the channels” (Heller 338). Korn’s statements emphasize the disconnect between the reality experienced by the soldiers and the officers in the upper echelon of the bureaucracy. Unlike the soldiers, who experience the horrors of war on emotional and physical levels, the officers experience the war on impersonal and aesthetic levels through aerial photographs and forms that do not always give the officers an accurate conception of reality. This becomes evident when Doc Daneeka is declared dead because his name appears on the flight log of a plane that has crashed. Although Doc Daneeka was not actually on the plane and thus is alive, he “realize[s] that, to all intents and purposes, he really [is] dead” (Heller 355) because the forms say he is dead and the forms shape reality. It does not matter that he is biologically alive because in the bureaucratic society Heller depicts forms and paperwork determine the existence of individuals and “one dying boy is just as good as another” (Heller 192). The officers do not view the soldiers as individual humans. It is because of this indifference that Colonel Cathcart views the deaths of twelve soldiers as an opportunity to send out twelve more letters and move closer to having his name appear in the Saturday Evening Post (Heller 292). The problem with bureaucracy is that it is comprised of individuals who are too detached and impersonal to understand the effects of their actions on the individuals under their command.

As in Dr. Strangelove, the detachment of the bureaucracy in Catch-22 is problematic because of the extent to which individuals in bureaucratic society must yield to their omnipotent superiors who comprise the bureaucracy. Jones notes, “in bureaucratic society…people are trained to surrender their human prerogatives to processes and situations” (Jones 51). In Catch-22, the bureaucracy seeks to dominate the lives of individuals by stymieing individual thought. In order to ensure its dominance, Group Headquarters institutes rules that prohibit soldiers from questioning official policy (Heller 44). These rules allow Group Headquarters to force young men “to give up their lives for the ideals, aspirations, and idiosyncrasies of the old men [who comprise the bureaucracy]” (Heller 227). The bureaucracy must prevent individual thought and induce mass conformity to ensure that its authority will not be challenged. The success of the bureaucracy in quashing individual thought is evident when Dobbs seeks Yossarian’s approval for his plan to kill Colonel Cathcart, “‘You don’t have to tell me to go ahead. Just tell me it’s a good idea. Okay? Is it a good idea?’” (Heller 237). The bureaucracy has stripped Dobbs of his autonomy and capacity for individual thought, rendering him docile to the point where he can no longer act independently. The bureaucratic society not only controls its constituents’ thought processes, but also their physical beings. This is evident when Chaplain Tappman is apprehended by Captain Black and taken to Group Headquarters, where he is falsely accused of insubordination. As he is being questioned, Chaplain Tappman realizes the power of the bureaucracy, “they might do whatever they wished to him, he realized; these brutal men might beat him to death right there in the basement and no one would intervene to save him” (Heller 391). When Tappman realizes there is no one who can “intervene to save him,” it is an acknowledgement of the horror of an unchecked society that strips individuals of their autonomy and subjects them to the authority of their detached superiors who have little concern for their well-being.

The extent to which bureaucratic authority is arbitrary and inaccessible to the individuals who are subjected to it is further illustrated in the experiences of Yossarian. After Snowden’s death, Yossarian begins to reflect on his situation, and realizes that “strangers he [doesn’t] know [shoot] at him with cannons every time he [flies] up in the air to drop bombs on them” (Heller 26). As Yossarian reflects on his situation, he realizes he is fighting in the war solely because he has been ordered to do so. Yossarian is unwilling to risk his life for no reason, so he decides not to submit to arbitrary orders. He wants the bureaucracy to offer justification for its seemingly arbitrary demands, but when he attends the information sessions and begins asking questions, questions are disallowed (Heller 44). As Colonel Cathcart continues to arbitrarily increase the number of missions, Yossarian becomes increasingly fed up with the bureaucratic system and tries to speak directly to Major Major, but Major Major avoids Yossarian by sneaking out his window (Heller 112). This scene and Major Major’s subsequent decision not to see anyone while he’s in his office (Heller 117) depict the inaccessibility of the bureaucracy.

The harms of the bureaucratic system are clear as it exercises arbitrary authority over the lives of individuals, but it is inaccessible to these individuals and thus immune to protest or questioning. No longer willing to docilely submit to the omnipotent bureaucracy, Yossarian resists by staying in the hospital for extended periods, refusing to wear his uniform, dropping his bombs haphazardly, refusing to fly any more missions and ultimately running away. When Major Danby seeks to force Yossarian back into the system by telling him that running away is not a good way to solve his problems, “Yossarian patiently explains to Major Danby that the escapists, the true escapists, are those who allow the malign bureaucracy to run their lives; the strong man chooses to live on his own terms” (Jones 47). Thus, Yossarian’s predicament and the problem Heller depicts in Catch-22 is not war, but the impersonal and inaccessible bureaucracy that wields inordinate control of individuals’ lives and strips them of their independence, while refusing to justify its seemingly arbitrary authority. Running away then is Yossarian’s means of escaping the all-encompassing bureaucracy and regaining control of his own life.

The view that the focus in both Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove and Heller’s Catch-22 is on individuals’ helplessness and subservience in a detached, arbitrary, and omnipotent bureaucracy, rather than war, is supported by an analyses of the structure and stylistic techniques employed in each novel. Joseph J. Waldmeir notes of the structure of Catch-22, “Plotless really, the book is unified by the pattern of absurdity established at its outset…Faced with chaotic structure and endless repetition of episodes which individually are often quite funny…one begins to feel [the novel] would have been better if it had been better made” (Waldmeir 163). The disjointed structure, however, is not accidental and Catch-22 would not be better with a more unified plot because by obscuring the storyline, Heller directs the reader’s attention to the satirical aspect of the book, which is equally as important as the plot. In both Catch-22 and Dr. Strangelove, the plot depicts the bureaucratic society and the satire is used to deconstruct and criticize it. As Leo Braudy explains “satire constantly asks the viewer to compare what’s going on with a recognizable reality” (Braudy 59). Thus, while the satire consists of hyperbolic exaggeration, the object of the satire is depicted through the plot and thus there is a recognizable reality to which the analyst can refer. Thus, with satire Heller and Kubrick systematically depict the laughable absurdities of bureaucratic society and deconstruct the system.

In Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick uses a variety of techniques to induce the viewer to laugh at and reject bureaucracy. While Dr. Strangelove was originally intended to be a movie based on the serious book Red Alert, as Kubrick was writing the script, he realized he had to leave out things “‘which were either absurd or paradoxical in order to keep it from being funny,’” (Philips 89) so he decided to write “an absurd black comedy and allegorical satire, populated with caricatures rather than fully developed characters” (Philips 15). Kubrick’s deliberate decision to make the film satirical is important because it indicates the satire conveys meanings essential to deciphering the message of the film. The humor in the film is evident from the outset. In the opening scene, the refueling of a bomber denotes a sexual act and the refueling rod becomes a phallic symbol as the camera pans back and forth. Humor also manifests itself in the names Kubrick gives to General Jack D. Ripper and General ‘Buck’ Turgidson as well as Burpleson Airforce Base. When the viewer laughs at Kubrick’s satire he is recognizing the absurdities of bureaucratic society and laughing at and symbolically rejecting that society. As Bakhtin explains, laughter constitutes rejection because “‘Laughter demolishes fear and piety before an object, before a world, making it an object of familiar contact and thus clearing the ground for an absolutely free investigation of it.’” (Craig 76-77). Thus, the satire augments the criticism of bureaucratic society Kubrick expresses in the plot.

Throughout Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick not only satirizes the world he depicts generally but frequently employs satire in depicting Ripper and Turgidson because Kubrick wants the reader to laugh at these characters who embody the bureaucratic system. As Ripper tells Mandrake about Plan R, Kubrick uses an extreme low-angle close up to emphasize the phallic cigar jutting from between Ripper’s lips (Falsetto 29). When Ripper speaks with this phallic cigar jutting from his mouth, the viewer cannot help but laugh at him.

The satire Kubrick uses to portray Ripper prevents the viewer from taking Ripper or the values he represents seriously. This phallic image is not arbitrary because it relates to Ripper’s justification for ordering the execution of Plan R, which is that “his diminishing sexual potency…[stems from] an international communist conspiracy to poison the drinking water” (Philips xix). In this scene, Ripper undercuts the validity of his justification for war and the seriousness of his own character because his theory is palpably absurd and laughable and emphasizes his insanity. The phallic imagery and bureaucracy are intertwined and jointly satirized later when Ripper whips a phallic gun out of a golf bag to defend against approaching troops. The phallic nature of the gun reminds the viewer of Ripper’s absurd theory and the golf bag reminds the viewer of Ripper’s connection to bureaucracy. Kubrick is mocking the fact that for bureaucrats, like Ripper, war, like golf, is nothing more than a game because it is their subordinates, and not they, who are personally affected. Turgidson embodies the bureaucratic system in the same way Ripper does, so he is also an object of satire.

The prominently depicted phallic cigar that prevents Ripper from being taken seriously when he speaks is replaced for Turgidson by farcical facial contortions, that Kubrick emphasizes with close camera shots. Even when Turgidson is not speaking he cannot be taken seriously as his behavior parallels that of an immature boy: he chews his gum obnoxiously, pouts when President Muffley rejects his plan, instigates a wrestling match with the Russian ambassador, and gesticulates wildly as he describes with glee how the remaining bomber can survive and set off the Doomsday Device. By inducing the reader to laugh at Ripper and Turgidson, Kubrick “change[s] the truth value of what those characters [represent] so as to undermine [their] seriousness, [their] claim to…authority, and so to call [them] into question” (White). Thus, by satirizing Ripper and Turgidson, Kubrick undermines their seriousness and authority and thus the seriousness and authority of the bureaucratic system they represent. The laughter Kubrick’s satire induces is thus a form of rejection because it signifies a recognition of the absurdities of the bureaucratic system.

In Catch-22, the narrative techniques employed by Heller are similarly essential to his criticism of bureaucratic society. In Catch-22, the chaotic structure is not accidental, but is an intentional mechanism designed to force the reader to look beyond the plot. Heller does not want the reader to simply analyze the plot; he wants the reader to analyze the satiric techniques that make the book unique. Heller’s satire most frequently appears in his descriptions of the officers who comprise the upper echelons of the bureaucracy or the policies of the bureaucracy. Heller mocks the inefficiency of bureaucratic society through his satiric depiction of the Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade, a campaign started by Captain Black to get back at Major Major for stealing his promotion. Heller writes, “The Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade was a glorious pain in the ass, since it complicated their task of organizing crews for each combat mission. Men were tied up all over the squadron signing, pledging and singing, and the missions took hours to get under way. Effective emergency action became impossible, but…Captain Black…scrupulously enforced the doctrine of ‘Continual Reaffirmation’…, a doctrine designed to trap all those men who had become disloyal since the last time they signed a loyalty oath the day before” (Heller 124). The Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade and Continual Reaffirmation are meant to serve as microcosms for the inefficient and unnecessary policies of bureaucracy. While Black is trying to make Major Major look bad by not allowing him to sign a loyalty oath, and thus make him look disloyal, ironically, it is Black who is allowing his petty squabble to impede the war effort.

The satire is evident because the policies are self-defeating insofar as they are meant to help the war effort by ensuring loyalty, but in fact hurt it by preventing the organization of crews. Moreover, the reader cannot help but laugh at Continual Reaffirmation because it is absurd to think that it could actually weed out disloyal soldiers and that soldiers would become disloyal overnight. While the example itself is extreme and absurd, Heller’s satire is effective because the reader recognizes that this example serves as a microcosm of, and references the reality of, the inefficiency of bureaucracy. By inducing the reader to laugh, Heller directs the reader’s attention to this flaw and causes the reader to recognize the absurdity of the bureaucratic system.

In Catch-22, Heller also uses satire to mock the officers who espouse the values of the bureaucratic system. As Craig notes, “its objects of satire are portrayed as being fools and knaves” (Craig 27). By having the officers say things that upon reflection are asinine, Heller makes the officers appear to be fools. During an inspirational speech, Colonel Cargill says to the men, “You’re American officers. The officers of no other army in the world can make that statement. Think about it.” This statement is humorous because Cargill asks the men to reflect upon the statement, but when one reflects upon the statement its absurdity is evident. It is merely a statement of fact, not a statement of the men’s abilities. Thus, Cargill’s inspirational speech is not inspirational at all. Frequently, Heller’s satire takes the form of self-negating “statements that deny the meaning they have just advanced” (Craig 26). For example, in describing Colonel Cathcart, Heller writes “Colonel Cathcart had courage and never hesitated to volunteer his men for any target available” (Heller 64). While Cathcart might be courageous in volunteering himself to attack any target available, his willingness to volunteer others does not make him courageous. Heller does not directly say that Cathcart is a coward, but the insinuation is clear. The self-negating sentence is an effective tool because it allows Heller to portray as absurd seemingly valid arguments. This occurs when Major Sanderson rebukes Yossarian for having “no respect for excessive authority or obsolete traditions. You’re dangerous and depraved and you ought to be taken outside and shot” (Heller 309).

While the argument that during times of war individuals must sometimes cede to, and make sacrifices for, the common good, Sanderson’s argument is undercut because Yossarian’s challenging “excessive authority and obsolete traditions” presumably is a good thing. Heller thus uses the self-negating sentence to control how the arguments he rejects are portrayed and force the reader to recognize their absurdity and reject them as well. As Craig notes, “‘a sympathetic reader, laughing at its satirized subjects, feels himself to be a member of a select aristocracy based on virtue and intelligence….Catch-22 allows its readers to celebrate their ethical superiority over, and distance from, the military machine and bureaucratic machine, which are made to look ridiculous and insane in the novel’” (Craig 27). Through his satire, Kubrick induces the reader to laugh at, and to accept, the absurdity of the policies and manifestations of the bureaucratic system and to distance himself from it.

Thus, the worlds depicted by both Kubrick and Heller are horrific and comically absurd not because of the war, but because of the arbitrary and inaccessible bureaucracy that wields omnipotent authority over the lives of the individuals subject to its control. When the analyst laughs at the bureaucratic society Kubrick and Heller depict, he recognizes its absurd and arbitrary nature and commits to resisting its totalizing effects. While the criticism Kubrick presents in Dr. Strangelove is to some extent linked specifically to the military bureaucracy, insofar as he is criticizing its policy of deterrence through mutually assured destruction, Heller’s criticism is not. To ensure that his criticism will not be considered inextricably linked to war or the military bureaucracy, Heller “sets his book at [WWII’s] end, when Germany was no longer a military threat” (Merrill 12) and “does everything he can to dissociate his own satiric attack from the actual war against Nazism” (Merrill 53). Unlike Kubrick, who links his criticism specifically to the military bureaucracy’s handling of nuclear war during the Cold War, Heller is intentionally ambiguous so that his criticism will not be considered indelibly connected to war or the military. Although war is the context for the book, Catch-22 is intended to warn the reader of and satirize the bureaucratic structure of the business world. To this end, Heller inundates the novel with “references to nonmilitary practices – e.g., the ‘farming’ policies of Major Major’s father, Doc Daneeka’s prewar medical practice, the legend of Chief White Halfoat’s tribe and the oil industry” (Merrill 12). It is because of these references to the business world and Heller’s intentional ambiguity in relating it to war that the novel remains timely.

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To describe Catch-22 as a war novel then is to describe it inadequately and do it injustice. Catch-22 intentionally, and Dr. Strangelove, even if unintentionally, are applicable not simply to war or the military bureaucracy, but to the “‘the contemporary regimented business society’” (Merill 53). Thus, Heller’s and Kubrick’s critical depictions and satire are applicable to today’s society and individuals because they warn of the totalizing bureaucratic systems that are present in the business world of which these individuals may be a part.

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