Saturday, May 2, 2009

Krishna: A Study in Transformational Leadership, Part 2




[Continued from Part 1]


[Developed from a lecture given by the author to senior MBA students at XLRI, Jamshedpur. The article analyses the saying “Don’t let your sense of morals get in the way of your doing what’s right” in the light of Krishna’s leadership ethos in the Mahabharata, and also Krishna as a transformational leader in the light of this statement. It does this by comparing and contrasting Krishna and Bheeshma as leaders. All translations from the Sanskrit are by the author and are based on the popular version of the Mahabharata published by Gita Press, Gorakhpur.]

In comparison, Krishna comes across to us as an outstanding transformational leader in situation after situation. Again and again, throughout his life, he takes the risk of rejecting conventional morality and rises to levels of higher morality for a cause he espouses throughout his life. In doing so, he calls upon himself possible censure of his own generation and generations to come. But to him his cause was larger than himself, larger than his personal ego, larger than his name and fame, which could all be sacrificed for the larger good, the welfare of mankind, lokasangraha. If we accept the tradition that says Krishna was God incarnated in flesh, then that goal was what he states in the Gita as:

Yada yadi hi dharmasya glanir bhavati bharata,
Abhyutthanam adharmasya tadatmanam srjamyaham.
Paritranaya sadhoonam, vinashaya cha dushkrtam
Dharmasansthapanarthaya sambhavami yuge yuge.”[1]

“Whenever dharma declines and adharma prospers, then I create myself. For protecting the good and destroying the evil, for establishing dharma, I am born again and again in age after age.”

And if we look at him not as an incarnation but as another human being like us, then again we find this is what he did all his life: protecting the good, destroying the evil, establishing dharma where adharma reigned. And this mission was so sacred to him that at its altar he could unhesitatingly sacrifice his personal glory. Krishna burnt – so that others might get light and warmth.

Looking at Mahabharata’s Krishna [who is very different from the Krishna of the Bhagavata and in popular lore], we find that several of his actions are of questionable morality from a conventional standpoint. During the Mahabharata war, he encourages unrighteous acts repeatedly – and many of these acts that the Pandavas perform throughout the war are first conceived in his brain.

Thus we find Krishna suggesting to the Pandavas a treacherous plot to kill Drona on a day when Drona’s fury and skill in the warfield had become impossible to face and he was causing the death of thousands of Pandava warriors by the minute. Drona was like a whirlwind on that day, uprooting mighty warriors and ordinary soldiers alike by their hordes. Seeing the Kaurava side losing the battle, Drona had entered into a savage rage and after using other weapons to decimate huge chunks of the Pandava army, he had eventually begun using the brahmastra itself, one of the most powerful weapons of mass destruction of the day. Krishna realizes the grave seriousness of the situation and tells the Pandavas how Drona is simply invincible – not even the lord of the gods himself can defeat him in war so long as he wields weapons in his hands. Krishna asks them to forget conventional morality and rise up to the need of the hour. True, he tells them, slaying one’s teacher in the worst of sins, but time has come to do it. “The only way he could be killed is if he lays down the weapons,” says Krishna. “And therefore, Pandavas, forget about the sin of killing one’s teacher and do what is needed for victory… I believe he will give up battle if he hears that his son Ashwatthama is dead. Someone should now go to him and tell him that Ashwatthama has been killed.”[2]

A mean, vicious, cruel plan. Unrighteous to the core.

And that precisely is what they do, though Arjuna, the acharya’s favourite disciple, does not like it and Yudhishthira has grave compunctions about it. Bheema readily goes and slaughters an elephant called Ashwatthama that belonged to a king on his own side and then goes and announces to Drona loudly that Ashwatthama has been killed. The acharya does not trust him, and approaching Yudhishthira, known for his integrity, asks him if it is true. Yudhishthira is closer to Bheeshma in spirit and in his perception of dharma; he lacks the daring and courage, the higher vision of Krishna. Left to him he would not tell the lie – knowing this Krishna rushes to his side. The Mahabharata describes Krishna as very distressed at that time – he has reasons to be agonized, this is a decisive moment, Yudhishthira in his obtuse understanding of dharma is capable of giving up the whole plan – and with it the war and Krishna’s mission in life – establishing dharma in a land from which it was fast disappearing. Krishna tells him, “If a furious Drona fights the battle this way for just half day, let me assure you, your entire army will be decimated. I beg you, Yuidhishthira, save us all from Drona. This is a time when a lie is superior to the truth.”[3]

Satyat jyayo’nrtam vachah – lying words are superior to the truth. It takes the courage of a Krishna to say that. It takes the vision of Krishna to justify that.

Bheema too rushes to Yudhishthira and informs him that he has just killed an elephant called Ashwatthama and begs him to listen to what Krishna says and tell Drona that Ashwatthama has been killed. And then Yudhishthira, the one everyone believed was incapable of telling a lie, is more or less persuaded to lie, though he still clings to the truth in word and lies only in spirit, as is frequent with those of conventional morality. He tells the acharya aloud that Ashwatthama has been killed and then adds softly that it is an elephant that has been killed, so softly that Drona does not hear those words.[4]

The Acharya, the revered and beloved guru of the Pandavas, is shattered by the news of the death of his son who was dearer to him than his life – it was for the sake of this son that he had taken up weapons, it was for his sake that he had climbed down from the austere heights of brahmanahood and become a kshatriya by profession, if he was spreading death in the battlefield like a firestorm now, it was all because of what he had to do for the sake of his son. Drona suddenly loses all interest in the war and laying down his weapons, announces to Duryodhana and others that it is now for them to carry on the war, he is finished with it.

Drona sits down in his chariot in deep meditation and enters a world of serenity that only the great yogis know and his soul leaves his body. It is while his body is thus seated, after his soul has departed his body, that the man born to kill him, Dhrishtadyumna, Draupadi’s brother and the son of Drona’s one time friend and later enemy, cuts off his head. Arjuna rushes towards him to stop that horrid act, shouting at Dhrishtadyumna not to kill the Acharya – he is Dhrishtadyumna’s acharya too – but he is too late. So vile and despicable is this action, and such the subsequent fury in the Pandava camp itself at this treachery to the revered acharya, that Dhrishtadyumna, the perpetrator of the final act of this sordid deed almost loses his life at the hands of his own friends and partners.

True, Drona had done many things a brahmana, a man of his exalted status who was supposed to spend his time in studies, teaching and meditations, should not have done. In the last moments of his life he was engaged in a war and slaughtering men by the thousands – when a brahmana is not allowed to kill any living thing under any circumstances. And, moments before Dhrishtadyumna cut off his head, he was using the brahmastra against all and sundry – the first rule taught to a man before he is given the brahmastra is that it could be used only against another man who knows the brahmastra and not against ordinary warriors. In his blind fury, sharpened by Duryodhana’s incessant badgering that he was not sincere in the battlefield, that he did not want to kill the Pandavas, he had forgotten that first lesson of morality that rules the use of that consuming weapon. But in spite of all that, the betrayal of a man of his quality and stature in such a heartless fashion, that too by his own disciples, is an immoral act.

Unless, of course, you look at it from the perpective of the higher morality – that of lokasangraha, the larger weal. This mighty warrior, the man of many virtues, was battling on the side of darkness and his victory would have meant a failure to dharma, failure to Krishna’s mission of establishing a righteous world, to his vision of a world of light. Conventional morality cannot justify it, the morality of the word cannot justify it, but from the vantage point of higher morality, morality based on not just rules and regulations but on the larger good, it is not only justifiable, but essential. Except for that one thing, the larger good, it flouts all other rules of established behaviour in cultured societies, social norms and traditions, the values cultivated through centuries of noble living. But Krishna was looking at the situation not from the standpoint of lower morality, but from the perspective of the higher dharma for which he had lived all his life.

True, by choosing the higher dharma over conventional dharma, over the dharma of tradition and customs, Krishna made himself open to the criticism that he betrayed trust, that he fouled, played the game of war treacherously, as treacherously as the Kauravas had played the game of dice. How then, one may ask, is Krishna different from the Kauravas?

Well, there is one difference between the actions of the Kauravas in the dice hall of Hastinapura and Krishna’s act of treachery in the battlefield of Kurukshetra. And that is a big difference. The actions of the Kauravas in the dice hall were immoral – below the level of ordinary morality – and were prompted by greed, by anger, by vengeance, by jealousy, by bitterness and resentment, by intolerance, and by a dozen other dark and evil powers in their hearts. Whereas Krishna’s actions in Kurukshetra were of higher morality – above the level of ordinary morality – and they originated in his desire for the welfare of the world, in the desire to establish a just society, to destroy the powers of darkness and bring light to the world.

Higher morality and immorality are often confused. The wicked fall into immorality and truly great men soar to the level of higher morality.

Krishna again uses breaks the rules when he had Bheema kill Duryodhana treacherously at the end of the war. Here again, as in the case of Drona, he had no choice except to follow a path, take his followers through a path, that the world at large, with its values of ordinary morality, would call immoral. Yudhishthira, when he challenged Duryodhana to come out and fight, made a stupid blunder by promising that if Duryodhana beat any one of the Pandava brothers, using any weapon of his choice, then the entire kingdom that they had won through the war would go back to him. Duryodhana was the best mace warrior of the day, with none of the Pandava brothers, including Bheema an equal to him. He could easily have beaten Sahadeva or Nakula, or even Arjuna or Yudhishthira himself in mace and the kingdom would have gone back to him and all the war, and all those deaths and misery, would all have been wasted. It was partly the nobility in Duryodhana and partly his arrogance that made him choose Bheema for a battle with the mace – and even Bheema was losing and the only way to save the situation was to do what would be ordinarily called an act of adharma, but was necessary for the welfare of the world and therefore a higher dharma. And that is what Krishna chooses to do when he asks Bheema to strike Duryodhana below the waist and kill him against the rules of the mace.

To go by the interpolated story of the disrobing of Draupadi in the Mahabharata, there were many persons present in the assembly who could have intervened decisively on her behalf. Except for Vidura and Vikarna, two not very powerful figures there who did intervene at least in words on her behalf, the others who felt for her were all afraid of speaking out on her behalf, not to say anything about doing something. These included mighty warriors like Bheeshma, Drona, Ashwatthama and Kripa, and all five of Draupadi’s own husbands. I do not think it was fear of the physical might of Duryodhana that cowed them down – they were fearless men in the battlefield and an encounter with weapons is something that thrilled them all, excepting perhaps Yudhishthira. What made them keep quiet was confusion regarding dharma. In some corner of their minds they felt what was going on was fine. What was being done to Draupadi there was monstrous and ugly, but Duryodhana had the right to do it because Yudhishthira had staked her in the dice game and lost her and therefore she was his slave and tradition and customs gave the master the right to do what he liked with his slave – he could sell her if he so wished, gift her to someone else, have sex with her, give her for sex to another, make her do whatever he wished, do with her whatever he desired, including denuding her and parading her naked in an assembly. So what was to be decided was the question that Draupadi had raised: Was she a slave or not? If she was, even if not because Yudhishthira had staked her but by the fact that she was the wife of men who had become slaves and everything that belonged to the slave belonged to the master and in that sense she belonged to Duryodhana and was his property and he could do what he liked with his property, then he had the right to do what he liked with her, including denuding her and parading her naked.

Na dharmasaukshmyat subhage vivektum shaknomi te prashnam imam[5] – “when I examine the situation, oh beautiful one, I am not able to arrive at a clear answer to your question because dharma is very subtle”. This is what Bheeshma tells Draupadi finally responding to her question whether she has been won in the dice game or not – jitam va ajitam va mam manyadhve sarvabhoomipah: “what do the kings present here consider – that I have been won, or that I have not been won?”.[6] A little later he repeats:

Uktavanasmi kalyani dharmasya parama gatih
Loke na shakyate jnatum api vijnair mahatmabhih…
Na vivektum cha te prashnam imam shaknomi nishchayat
Sookshmatvad gahanatvad cha karyasya asya cha gauravat[7]

“I have already told you, auspicious one, the path of dharma is subtle indeed. Even great men with immense knowledge find it difficult to comprehend it… I am not able to arrive at a definite conclusion about your question – because the matter is subtle, deep and of enormous import.”

The essence of dharma is difficult to comprehend; hidden is the path of dharma. Dharma is too subtle and in this case he is not sure what is right and what is wrong. That is what Bheeshma says.

And that is what ties him down.

Bheeshma is looking at the whole situation from the perspective of Duryodhana’s ownership rights and from whether Duryodhana owns Drauapdi now or not. He does not see the woman in distress standing before him, he does not see the bride of the family being so unforgivably humiliated before them all. Nor do Drona or Kripa or Ashwatthama see this. The four Pandavas feel their dharma does not allow them to act against their eldest brother and that eldest brother feels more or less the same as Bheeshma and Drona feel.

Krishna has no such hesitations, no such wrangling goes on within his heart. He sees the situation clearly from his higher moral standpoint. Here is a woman in distress, she needs his help, he is capable of rendering that help and he helps her. Whether Yudhishthira had a right to stake her, whether she is a slave and other questions like that are immaterial to him. He rises above such petty questions and sees with unerring clarity the human situation there and intervenes decisively showing how he can effortlessly rise to levels of higher morality when the occasion demands.

There is a beautiful encounter between Krishna and Bheeshma in the middle of the Mahabharata war. This happens in the later half of the ninth day of the war. Bheeshma is in a furious battle mood, at his very best as a warrior. Warriors are falling dead all around him in heaps, as are horses and elephants. Banners fall from flagstaffs in their hundreds, broken chariots form mounds around where he is battling. Bheeshma is no less than a fierce forest fire. Unable to stand his ferocity, the Pandava army screams and runs helter-skelter. Such is the terror and confusion, says the Mahabharata, that fathers start killing sons, sons fathers, and friends, friends. Maddened by dismay and dread, the army has lost its mind. Krishna tells Arjuna time has come to put an end to this – Bheeshma should be killed, and he should do that immediately and fulfill his earlier promise. Arjuna looks at Krishna and then he looks at Bheeshma once again – the grandfather in whose lap he had played as a child. Once, he remembers, seated in Bheeshma’s lap, he had called him father and Bheeshma had corrected him – no, he was his grandfather[8]. Arjuna goes into the vishada, melancholy, that he had gone into at the opening of the war, from which Krishna had brought him out through the teachings of the Gita. “Tell me, Krishna,” he says, “killing those who should not be killed and attaining a land [rajya] that would be worse than hell, and living a life of suffering in the jungle – of these two, which is better?”

He then reluctantly asks Krishna to take his chariot to where Bheeshma is. The two engage in a battle – fierce no doubt, but Krishna can see clearly that Arjuna’s heart is not in the battle, whereas Bheeshma, in spite of all his love for his favourite grandson, is merciless in his attack. Bheeshma’s attack grows more and more fierce by the minute, wounding both Arjuna and Krishna all over, bathing them in blood. As Krishna sees the Pandava army perishing all around and realizes that Arjuna is not going to strike back with all his heart, he realizes time has come to break his promise and act on his own. Leaving Arjuna in the chariot, he leaps down from it and still holding his whip in his hand and roaring like an enraged lion, rushes towards Bheeshma to kill him with his bear arms [on another occasion with a chariot wheel he picked up from the field in his hand]. The earth quakes as Krishna’s wrath-filled steps fall on it. Cries rise up from a thousand terrified throats – “Bheeshma is finished, Bheeshma is finished.”

Bheeshma sees Krishna approaching him like a whirlwind, murder in his eyes. “Come, come Krishna, and put and an end to my life today,” he says, readying his bow for battle. “I am honoured, Krishna, as never before; it’s like all the three worlds showering blessings on me. Come and finish me, Krishna.” Arjuna jumps down from his chariot and runs after Krishna, and it is only after a furious struggle with him that he succeeds in stopping him by holding on to his legs from behind and clinging on to them. Krishna’s fury does not abate even after Arjuna reminds him repeatedly of his vow of not fighting in the battle. Arjuna tells Krishna that world would call him a betrayer of his own word if he did not stop, a common liar. And then Arjuna vows not to spare Bheeshma, to kill him. He vows to do so by all his merits, by the weapons that are sacred to him as a warrior and by his truth. And it is only then that he is able to lead Krishna back to their chariot.

Here again we see Krishna breaking his word. He has vowed not to fight and yet he rushes towards Bheeshma in battle fury, ready to slay him. Once again proving that unlike Bheeshma, he would break his word if the occasion demands of it – so long as his goal is the good of the world, Krishna does not mind committing that sin. Arjuna specifically reminds Krishna here – the people would accuse him of breaking his word, of being a hypocrite, a liar and a betrayer. But Krishna does not mind that, at least does not mind it enough to stop him from doing what he thinks is right. Once again, he does not allow his morals to stand in the way of his doing what is right.

Two other incidents that prove the transformational nature of Krishna’s leadership need to be mentioned. As we saw earlier, one of the things that a transformational leader does is to raise his followers into plains of higher morality even as the leader himself rises to those levels. Towards the end of the great war, a moment comes when Arjuna has to choose between conventional morality and higher morality. The wheels of Karna’s chariot are stuck in mud wet with the blood of warriors and the chariot wouldn’t move. Karna jumps down from the chariot and tries to pull up the stuck wheel, requesting Arjuna not to attack him while he was down. The conventions of war said that Karna could not be attacked under such conditions. Let to himself, Arjuna would not have attacked him. But Krishna knows this opportunity to slay one of the most formidable warriors of the enemy army, the most formidable one alive by then, should not be missed – and Krishna asks Arjuna to shoot Karna dead. He tells him the man who is now asking for justice and fair treatment, for dharma, has no right to do so, for this is the man who stood with Duryodhana as his mainstay in all his unrighteous acts, the man who not only stood by and watched when Draupadi was being humiliated publicly in the dice hall, the man who ordered her final humiliation. Arjuna obeys Krishna. By ordering Arjuna to kill Karna, what Krishna does is to help Arjuna see the situation from the perspective of higher morality and give up the stance conventional morality would force him to take. Krishna raises Arjuna to the level of higher moral values here.

Krishna does the same thing during what has become one of the most important incidents in the Mahabharata. Arjuna’s inner conflict and the grief rising from that, about which he talks at great length in the first chapter of the Bhagavad Gita and in the beginning of the second chapter, is a result of his inability to see things from a higher moral plane. The entire message of the Gita is addressed to help Arjuna look at the war and his duty in it from the perspectives of Krishna’s vision – the higher values based on lokasangraha. Here too Krishna functions as a supremely competent transformational leader. And in doing so, he gives us what has become one of our greatest national treasures, the book that has guided our actions through millennia, one of humanity’s most cherished scriptures: the Gita, Krishna’s book of transcendental action, the flowering of his transformational wisdom.

~*~

It is interesting to ask oneself why Bheeshma, the highly competent prince, fails repeatedly to provide transformational leadership to his people where Krishna so effortlessly succeeds in doing so. The answer is that Krishna is what he himself describes in the second chapter of the Gita as a sthitaprajna – a man whose consciousness is steadily rooted in the higher. Whereas Bheeshma is a man trapped in his own self-image.

Greek mythology tells us the story of Echo and Narcissus, which Ovid narrates so beautifully in his Metamorphosis. Narcissus was a wild man who lived in the jungle hunting, living the life of a creature of the jungle. He knew no hungers other than that of the stomach. Echo sees this youth handsome beyond description and instantly loses her heart to him. But it was not in her power to address him, for a curse of Juno had reduced her to mere last words – echoes. One day Narcissus calls for his friends who had been separated from him and it is Echo who answers him – she had been following him around in the mountains and caves. However, when she appears before him, stretching her arms out to him in love, he pushes her away, shocked and horrified, for he knew not what love for a woman was. Hurt, her heart still aching with love for him, Echo moves away from him, to spend her time among the lonely mountain cliffs and caves. Gradually she wastes away and becomes just a voice – the echo.

The story takes slightly different turns at this stage. One version of it says that Echo cursed Narcissus that he too would pine away for a beloved and meet with his end, his love unrequited. Another says that it was another nymph whom he rejected that prayed that he would one day know what it was to love and feel the agony of unrequited love, and that the furies heard her prayer and granted it.

One day Narcissus is bent over a lonely fountain to drink water, he sees his image in the clear water and at that moment Echo’s curse takes effect. All on a sudden he feels the awakening of love within his heart – for the beauty he sees in the water. He bends down to kiss his beloved, stretches his arms out in his need to gather her in them, but at his touch the water is disturbed and the image disappears. He stays there agonized until the water calms down again and when he sees the image again, he stretches his arms out again, only to see his beloved disappear again at his touch.

The story tells us Narcissus stayed at the fountain till he fell down emaciated and died there, his love unrequited. The water nymphs and the nymphs of the forest and mountains mourned for him, along with Echo, and prepared a funeral for him. But when they looked for his body, it had disappeared and all they could see was a beautiful flower, purple inside, surrounded by white petals: – the narcissus.

Narcissism in modern psychology stands for self-love, especially destructive, self-consuming self-love. In his early youth young Devavrata took two vows, which transformed him into Bheeshma the terrible. Bheeshma liked his new image very much – he fell in love with it. It was a very honourable image, a glorious image: the martyr, the self-sacrificer, the man of unshakeable vows, the incorruptible man of total integrity. Bheeshma became allured by this self-image, enticed by it. He had turned his back to life and life, Echo, had cursed him in her turn – he was now the accursed Narcissus, bewitched by his own self-image, panging all his life for his own reflection in water, his self-image created by the oaths.

A narcissist cannot be a great leader of men, cannot transform people, cannot touch them.

Bheeshma, in spite of all his several great virtues, fails not because he is incompetent but because he is a man trapped in his own self-image, in conventional morality, trapped within himself. The patriarch of the Bharatas lives an astonishingly long life and comes into contact with several generations of people: Satyavati, Vyasa’s mother, belongs to his own generation. Satyavati’s children, Vyasa, Chitrangada and Vichitraveerya belong to the next generation. Dhritarashtra and Pandu, along with Vidura, belong to the third generation and their children who battle it out in Kurukshetra, the Dhartarashtras or Kauravas and the Pandavas, belong to the fourth. Abhimanyu and other Pandava and Kaurava children belong to a fifth generation. What is shocking is that while all these generations admire and revere Bheeshma immensely, Bheeshma himself has no positive influence on any of these generations. He fails to touch any of them, to transform them into greater beings.

Krishna, the supreme transformational leader, the sthitaprajna, transforms whoever he touches throughout his life.

~*~

Rising above conventional morality to levels of higher morality, raising his followers to these levels – this is not the only quality of a transformational leader. A transformational leader has wisdom, has a vision, has the ability to communicate that vision, has the courage to act out that vision, has the ability to identify with his followers and to address their true needs. He creates trust in his followers, has the power to motivate them, is proactive, has immense energy, purpose, total commitment, passion, courage and a powerful presence. At a personal level, he is kind, compassionate, shows understanding and acceptance, and has the power to laugh in the middle of calamities. He is gentle and firm and has the humility of, as the Tibetan Shambhala tradition puts it, the Himalayan tiger – the proud humility of a person who is himself, has no pretensions, does not wear masks.

Krishna, the supreme transformational leader, is all this – and much more.

~*~

The philosophy Krishna teaches, the philosophy Krishna practices in his own life, is a dangerous one though. It could mean that the end justifies the means. And to say that is to say something frightening in its implications, its possible interpretations and applications. In the hands of the evil, the philosophy could be disastrous – as the world has seen again and again, is seeing right now. For what is a great end for one, in his preoccupation with his selfishness, in his greed and avarice, in his egotistic self-absorption, in his search for personal glory, maybe misery for another, maybe grief, death and devastation for another.

The only perspective from which the end can justify the means is when your goals are set by a truly noble heart: a heart that wishes ill for nobody, that loves the world as much as it loves itself, and is willing to sacrifice itself at the altar of the good of the other, at the greater common weal. It is only then that we rise to the level of higher values – otherwise what we do is immorality, plain and simple.


[1] Bhagavad Gita 4.7-8
[2] Drona 191.11-13
[3] Drona 191.46-47
[4] In the popular version of this story, Krishna blows his conch to drown the last words of Yudhishthira that contain the truth. However, the Mahabharata does not tell us anything like that.
[5] Sabha 67.47
[6] Sabha 67.41
[7] Sabha 69.14&16
[8] In the Mahabharata culture a granduncle is almost always referred to as grandfather and an uncle frequently as father, as is done in some parts of India even today, though less frequently.

2 comments:

  1. Mahabharata on TV is so full of myths...and what you have represented is for everyone to clear their myths. I accept the point of Krishna being the transformational leader... and the larger good in contrast to Bhisma.. but what about Adolf Hitler. He was also in the larger good of the German people.. building their empire.. taking vengeance of the 1st world war.

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  2. @Kumar Ankit: Haven't you only answered your question: Hitler's aim was not the larger good of the German people rather taking vengeance of the 1st world war!

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