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A Conversation with Joseph Loconte

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WORLD Radio - A Conversation with Joseph Loconte

Reviewer Emily Whitten talks with author and historian Joseph Loconte about World War I


A scene from All Quiet on the Western Front IMDB

PAUL BUTLER: From the creative team that brings you The World and Everything in It, this is a WORLD Radio Special Presentation. Here’s interviewer Emily Whitten.

EMILY WHITTEN, INTERVIEWER: On November 11th every year, Americans celebrate Veterans Day—a day to honor veterans who now serve or have served in our nation’s military. Veterans Day began as Armistice Day in World War 1—the day Germany and the Allies signed a peace agreement, ceasing hostilities on the Western Front. It took effect at the "eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month" of 1918.

America lost more than a 100,000 service men in that war, and more than 4 million Americans served in the armed forces by its end. The casualties were even greater in Europe—where 17 million died as a result of the war.

Netflix recently released a new German adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1928 novel about World War I, All Quiet on the Western Front. I reviewed that film during Friday’s program.

In this extended discussion, author Joseph Loconte helps us understand the historical context for that new film and the novel it’s based on. A professor at The King’s College, Loconte also suggests how Christians should think about World War 1.

He includes insights from his 2015 book and upcoming film project, A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and A Great War. The book’s subtitle explains his topic, How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-18.

I began the interview by asking Loconte why he wrote the book…

JOSEPH LOCONTE: I never intended to write a book about C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien because there's so many wonderful biographies out there already. But it was after teaching Western civilization to my students at The King's College and appreciating really, for the first time how devastating the First World War was to the Europeans–not so much for the Americans because, as my British friends like to say, we showed up late to the war, we suffered the least, and we came out the strongest. So we didn't have the same psychological effect. The war didn't have the same psychological effect on us as it did on the Europeans. And of course, it was fought, so much of the war was fought on European soil. None of it on American soil in the First World War.

So when I understood the devastation of it, and then I realized for the first time that both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien had fought in the First World War. Lewis was almost killed by a mortar shell that went off nearby, obliterating his sergeant. And J.R.R. Tolkien fought at the Battle of the Somme. In 1916, in the Battle of the Somme, this was the fiercest concentration of killing up until that point in human history, and he is caught up in that battle. So once I understood that and realize that, then the little light bulb goes off in the brain where you think, Wait a minute, these two men both fought in this devastating conflict. They became friends at Oxford in the 1920s. And then they went on to write these epic, mythic stories about the battle for Good and Evil. And if you think about it, near the heart of those stories, well, they're war stories, aren't they?

WHITTEN: So yeah, you had that question, what, how did this shape that? And then you just go, that book is sort of the answer, right?

LOCONTE: The beginning of an answer, or at least the beginning, there's much more to do to explore the impact of the war on their imagination, John Garth, and I should mention John Garth, who wrote a really impressive book, Tolkien in the Great War really zeroes in on Tolkien's war experience, and the potential influence of that war experience on his creation of Middle Earth. John Garth is really an authority on Tolkien in that way.

WHITTEN: So I think that when I watched the movie All Quiet on the Western Front, it's a beautiful movie. It's a movie that has a lot of people talking about it right now because first of all, it's done by a German director, a German cast, it's in German, you know, and this is sort of like looking at World War I from the German side. And most of the movies that we watch here in America are set either in the British or the American point of view, sometimes the Canadian. But so to go this is what it was like on the other side, I think people are interested in that and they just–the cinematography is beautiful. He does all these panoramas and sort of aerial views and it's just filtered in a way that the colors are beautiful. There's a lot of contrast, so I think a lot of people will watch it. Right now it's got over 90% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes from critics and audience, which sometimes doesn't always happen. So, it's a popular film at the moment. And what I want to know from you is, how did Erich Remarque respond to World War One? And how might that be different from how Christians should respond?

LOCONTE: That's an excellent question. I think Erich Remarque, it was emblematic of how many soldiers responded to the trauma of the First World War, because they had no mental category for what they had experienced. The expression “shell shock,” which is still part of our vocabulary, originates in the First World War. So you had these soldiers experiencing this incredible trauma of the pounding of the shells hour after hour. And I think the shell shocked veteran in some way became a metaphor for the psychological mood of many Europeans. By the late 1920s, thanks in part to Erich Remarque’s book and the movie, the first movie that was made of All Quiet on the Western Front, it helped to really shape people's thinking about the First World War in the sense of seeing it as a futile war, absolutely futile for no good purpose.

And there's still some debate about that. And there should be historically because we don't have to go down this road too far. But the world would have been a very different place if Germany and Austria Hungary had triumphed in the First World War, and had gotten their way in Europe, had taken over France, and begun to control the continent, as Napoleon had done in the 19th century. That would have been a very different world. So it's not, you can make an argument about the utility of the war. But there certainly was this backlash against the industrialized slaughter of the First World War. Erich Remarque is emblematic of that.

Now to try to answer your question. How should Christians respond? Well, let's look at how J.R.R. Tolkien as a Catholic believer and C.S. Lewis as a Protestant believer, how did those two men respond ultimately, through their works? They're very clear about the tragedy of war, the tragedy of the human condition, the will to power. But they're also very clear about the need to resist evil in all of its forms. And I love this quotation–I have it in my book–I love this quotation from Faramir, the Captain of Gondor, where he says, “War must be while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all…” and then he goes on. “But I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for His glory. I love only that which they defend.” That's in a sentence or two, that is the Christian just war theory. There are some wars that are absolutely morally necessary in order to protect the innocent from great harm from great evil.

And the difficulty with Eric Remarque, and so many anti-war poets and writers in the 1920s and 30s, is that they seem to have abandoned the concept. They seem to have forgotten that evil is a real force that's going to have to be reckoned with. And sometimes the only way to stop a greater evil is to engage in conflict, to engage in war to restrain evil. And that's one of the unfortunate messages coming out of books like All Quiet on the Western Front, Goodbye to All That and other works in the 1920s and 30s. But Tolkien and Lewis resisted that clearly, in their writings. This is what I love about both authors.

Emily, if I could go on for another minute on this is that I think they avoid these two extremes. They avoid triumphalism. They avoid militarism. But they also avoid pacifism. They avoid utopian ways of thinking about the world. And they navigate between these two emotional, philosophical extremes, if you will. And where they come down, I think, is a Biblical understanding of the fall, a Biblical understanding of justice. And they navigate to these extremes in their writings consistently throughout. And it's an amazing literary moral and spiritual achievement, I think, that they're able to pull off in their major works.

WHITTEN: Well, I agree. And let me ask you something, because you said that pacifism, I can't remember exactly the word you use. But you sort of implied that it was naive. And a lot of people would look at something, the anti-war of this movie, and they would say, ‘That's not naive. That's realistic.’

LOCONTE: Yeah.

WHITTEN: Why is pacifism and anti war theory, why is that naive?

LOCONTE: I think emotionally, you can come to the conclusion that pacifism is the only answer, that complete disarmament is the way to peace. And that was the course that the countries in Europe and elsewhere tried to take after the First World War–a series of peace treaties, peace agreements, ministers who vowed never to serve in another conflict, peace societies cropping up all over Europe and in the United States. In 1928, you had the Paris Peace Act, you had dozens of nations coming together and swearing vowing never to resort to war as an instrument of foreign policy. Well, guess who were some of the nations who signed on to the Paris Peace Act? Germany, Italy, Russia, and Japan, all of them within 10 years or less, are becoming belligerents in another global conflict, right?

So it's naive in the sense to think that the will to power, the desire to dominate other people will somehow disappear, because some nations decide to become pacifist. The reality, of course, is exactly what happened in the 1930s. The nations that tried to adopt a neutral posture were simply absorbed or manipulated by those aggressor states. That's the plain lesson of the 1930s.

C.S. Lewis put it this way, actually, I think 1941 or 42. So the Second World War is on. And Lewis says this in a letter, I think, to a friend, or maybe there's an essay, he says we now know, from the last 20 years, that a frightened and angry pacifism is one of the roads that leads to war. That's Lewis reflecting on the previous two decades of anti-war, pacifist activity in Europe from his vantage point, and angry and terrified pacifism is one of the roads that leads to war. That's Lewis's conclusion. I think it's Tolkien’s as well.

WHITTEN: Mmm. You present two false gospels, really. You've got the pacifism. This idea that we can just, this naivete about war, and then also, there's a utopian gospel, that's all mixed up in this. There's a Churchill quote you mentioned in which he talks about the scientific. What was it? The civilized, scientific, Christian state. As if all three of those things are one–you know, civilization, science, and Christianity are all this one thing? And now that we've had World War I, all of that has been disproved. But if you could tell me, what was the problem with that Myth of Progress before World War I?

LACONTE: There certainly was this idea of progress, inevitable progress, right from, certainly from the 19th century industrial revolution on all these technological advances, advances in medicine, advances in science, people are coming to conclusion that not only are we improving in a technological scientific sense, but even human nature itself is improving, and can be improved through scientific means such as eugenics. And so the eugenics movement takes off before the First World War, is making inroads. And then after the First World War continues to make inroads in society and culture.

But the idea of progress, inevitable progress, it rests on a certain view of human nature. We can somehow manipulate it and change it. Well, history should have taught us that is simply not the case. So the First World War, in a sense, delivers a body blow to the notion of progress, but it doesn't destroy it. We're still living with the idea of a myth of progress, that we can improve ourselves. And we are inevitably moving forward into broader sunlit uplands to borrow from Winston Churchill, who was not a believer in the myth of progress, certainly not the way the 19th century people thought about it. But Lewis and Tolkien come of age at the end of the Victorian era, with this idea of progress very much in front of them. The First World War begins to deliver a body blow through that, and it does create an incredible degree of disillusionment. And that I would argue, is the watchword of the 1920s and 30s: disillusionment.

Now, how does Christian nationalism for example, and other views play into this? Maybe one way to think about it is this when there's a weakening of Christian faith in society, when the Christian gospel doesn't hold sway over people's hearts and minds over the centers of intellectual thinking, culture formation, when the gospel becomes less important or becomes irrelevant? Well, people don't stop being made in the image of God. People have a need to worship and their desire to worship, it will be directed to other things. So instead of the true object of our worship–coming from a person of faith, Jesus, our Lord–moving away from Him as our proper object of worship, it now moves to something else. One expression is Christian nationalism. We idolize politics. We idolize the state. I frankly think we're in danger of that, in some ways today. I don't think that problem has gone away. But it certainly was a problem. As nations were moving into the First World War, a Christian nationalism–the Christian nations of Europe had engaged in this mutual suicide pact. That's one of the reasons the reaction was so strong, not only against the nation state in the 1920s and 30s, but then against Christianity, against organized religion as being part of the problem, part of the culprit that led us into this cataclysm.

WHITTEN: Right, is that it's sort of like, if you had parents who mistreated one another and called themselves Christians, you might be tempted to reject Christianity, because your understanding of what Christianity is is gonna be very warped, you know. And so it would have been on a national scale or an international scale where you have these people who are claiming to be authorities for Christianity and they engage in such evil. And it's not, it wasn't out there for Tolkien and Lewis. You know, I think you said that Tolkien lost all his friends…

LOCONTE: And the same for CS Lewis, he lost most of his closest friends, both of them did in the First World War. So they had no illusions about the horror and the suffering and the great loss of war. It affected them emotionally in a profound way. Tolkien's children said that it really created in him a kind of lifelong sadness of what he experienced in the First World War. And Lewis said that memories of the First World War invaded his dreams for years afterwards.

And this is part of what's so actually encouraging about the story is, I think, when the two of them came together in friendship, and then formed a larger circle of Christian friends, the Inklings, most of whom were combat veterans, actually, when you look at their biographies–we don't know what happened in those conversations in Lewis's rooms, or The Eagle and Child pub or elsewhere, but I am certain some of it was that knowing, that common understanding of what it was to have fought in that war, and I think those men helped one another emotionally to cope with the experience of that war as they as they reentered, you know, their world.

WHITTEN: Okay, I have two more questions for you. The first one is, it just occurs to me that we were talking about the Myth of Progress. But Tolkien, that conversation that's so famous where he has this late night conversation with C.S. Lewis, there's another myth being talked about. And this one happens to be true. But it's a different way, a myth in the sense of a large explanation of who we are and what is happening, what is the meaning of our lives. Instead of, we are part of this evolution naturally marching forward to glory. What was the other myth that Tolkien shared with C.S. Lewis and that so gripped him and enabled them to stand against these two extremes?

LOCONTE: Yes, that's a fabulous question. You know, my friend, Diana Glyer, who's written a wonderful book about Tolkien and Lewis and the Inklings, The Company They Keep, she has described a myth, rightly, as an expression in narrative form of the deepest values of a culture. What Lewis didn't understand and what Tolkien helps him to understand is that, yes, there are these ancient myths that don't seem to have any truth value or fact, real facts attached to them. And that was Lewis's hang up with Christianity,

WHITTEN: …the Romans, the Roman myths, and the North.

LOCONTE: That's exactly right, the ancient pagan myths. Lewis was drawn to those myths, because of their narrative power. The idea of Gods coming to earth, the idea of heroic sacrifice for some noble cause. He's drawn to the myths for that reason. And then he comes to Christianity. And he's not attracted to it at all. For various reasons. He doesn't think there's any fact value to the Christian story. It's a myth like these other myths, there's no truth to it.

What Tolkien helps him to see is that Christianity is like these other myths in its narrative power, but it's unlike them in an important way. It is the one myth that became fact, one time in history, that God of the universe actually entered into our human experience for the purpose of saving us, redeeming us. The myth, the true myth, the myth that became fact. That conversation with Lewis on Addison's walk in 1931. That conversation opened up the door to his mind in a way that I think no one else could have done. Tolkien does it. And that helped him to understand that Christianity could actually be the myth that became fact and all these other ancient pagan myths in some ways, they're intimations of the great myth that became fact, there are hints or shadows of the true myth. That was a breakthrough for Louis.

He writes about it explicitly in a letter to a friend; he had this conversation with Tolkien and with Hugo Dyson, another member of the Inklings. And it was, as Lewis put it later, it was the immediate human cause of his conversion to Christianity, that conversation with J.R.R. Tolkien. So you think, wow, something transformative happened to him in that conversation with his friends in 1931. And it led to his full Christian conversion days afterwards.

WHITTEN: So how does the idea that Christ–first of all, that we are fallen and cut off from God, we're all rebels. And that death is, in a way, I would think of it as like war–it’s sort of just a concentration of what we're all in. We're all in this situation where left and right people we love are dying. And what does Christianity, the basic idea of Christ coming? What is it that, what is it about the answer that we have that keeps us from falling into utopianism or cynicism?

LOCONTE: Yes. Jesus was and is on a rescue mission. And I needed rescuing. And that's hard for us to kind of admit to ourselves that we all need rescuing. There's a wonderful line from Abraham Lincoln, actually, I have to paraphrase it, I don't have it exactly where he says, Lincoln says–and Lincoln knew his Bible–he said the Bible says somewhere that mankind is desperately selfish, desperately wicked. And then he goes on and says, I think I would have discovered that fact without the Bible.

That's if we're honest with ourselves, we realize there are all these things in us that we know are just they aren't good, they aren't right. And we long to be different people, we longed to be transformed. All of us do, at some level. We want to become different people, a little kinder, a little nobler, a little more generous. And we know we don't really have it in us, and we fail.

And I think what helps me is to contemplate to reflect on Jesus as the rescuer, as the one who came to rescue me from myself, and to help me to become the man I want to be to rescue me from final alienation from God, which is the hardest truth. That I could actually be cut off from God, from all of eternity. I don't want to believe that about myself. But the Bible tells me that about myself. That's the bad news. But the good news is rescue–rescue and redemption. He came to save me from that absolutely horrific end. And also, to help me to become the man that I longed to be, to be transformed into His image. That helps me when I contemplate those facts about life, about the universe–rescue from death, rescue from sin, rescue from hell.

WHITTEN: Yeah, I feel like the anti war idea. We all, I feel like most people agree, anybody who has read much or watched war films that are well made, the whole idea that war is hell, I mean, I can go along with that to a great degree. It seems pretty awful. It seems much worse than anything I've ever been through. It seems really, really bad. C.S. Lewis said, you have a quote in your book where it says it takes the vices or the suffering that you would experience stretched out of your whole life and it condenses, you have all of that all at once. You're hungry, you're tired, you're being you're basically a slave to your masters above you, and you know, you just you could go on and on as to how awful it is.

How do we get out of hell? Well, we don't get out of hell by pretending we can just stop having wars. That's not a real route. And we also don't get out of hell by pretending that our nation is going to be heaven on earth. If we just trust and we just band together, we can overcome all our individual vices and sins. The only way out of hell is through Christ. And so some of the things you mentioned in your talk about this book and sort of Lewis and Tolkien, you talk about their realistic view of power and man's attraction to it and how we actually treat power. That they're, in their works, there's always people who are tempted to misuse power. That's just how it is. But they also don't give up on the idea of heroes, of heroism.

LOCTONE: Sure. Sure. Sure. And the idea that the individual could make a difference in the face of great forces out of his control. I mean, this is what they're grappling with, the absorption of the individual into the state and political totalitarian systems, or just a cynicism about the individual and his or her ability to do anything of moral value. They're facing these ideologies that are so denigrating, the worth of the individual, and what the two of them are doing, borrowing in part from this classical tradition, but also now baptizing it with their Christian imagination, they are reasserting the incredible worth of the individual because he or she is made in the image of God. And this is very deliberate in their stories, the smallest individual, the hobbit, Reepicheep, the mouse, they all have a role to play in the battle against evil. They are caught up in that story. And they have choices to make, and their destinies, their characters, their spiritual destiny is going to be shaped by how they respond to the great challenge in front of them.

WHITTEN: Right, right. Um, let's see. Okay. Would you like to read something from your book? if there's something you feel like speaks to what we've been talking about?

LOCONTE: Well, sure. I mean, there is a sense in which they can't accomplish the goal. They can't save themselves. They can't bring about the redemptive outcome on their own. That is worth mentioning because it is a central feature of both their epic stories. Because at the end of the day, Frodo doesn't really accomplish the task. Not in the way he intended. The same, of course, is true in the Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis is much more explicit about it, right? Aslan as the Christ figure.

So let me read you a few lines that are here from the book that helped to describe this and maybe summarize it: “I think that the creators of Narnia and Middle Earth, they really give us a view of human life that is at once terrifying, and sublime. They insist that every soul is caught up in an epic story of sacrifice and courage and clashing armies. The return of the King, it is the day when every heart will be laid bare. We will know with inexpressible joy or unspeakable sorrow, whether we have chosen light or darkness. ‘Is everything sad going to come untrue?’ asked Sam. Here, we find beyond all imagination, the deepest source of hope for the human story. For when the King is revealed, there will be no more night, the shadow will finally and forever be lifted from the earth. The great war will be won. This King who brings strength and healing in His hands will make everything sad come untrue.” That's the gospel. That's what their stories I think, ultimately are about. That's why they continue to appeal to people across cultures, across time.

WHITTEN: So, I think that people will watch this film, and some of them will just enjoy the cinematography, and they won't go any deeper. They'll just watch it, they'll eat some popcorn, and they'll think, well, that was interesting or fun, you know, to see all the explosions. This movie is less fun than a lot of other war movies. This movie, I feel, is made in such a way that you're not supposed to enjoy it. I do think people are drawn to the anti-war message. They're seeing it, and they're not really thinking about the implications of it. They understand that we're in a time of great conflict in our culture and just internationally, there's a lot going on. And it's kind of hip and it has been hip for a long time to say, well, we should just, you know, war is hell, and we're going to be against war–to take that posture. That's a cool posture. I think that the people who are willing to think a little bit more about what this movie is saying, and how it overlaps Christian views in the sense that we can agree…

LOCONTE: Yeah, I think we want to affirm–I love where you're going with this, Emily–because I think we want to affirm as Christians, that the desire for peace is a God given desire. Jesus is called the Prince of Peace after all, the Prince of Peace. And yes, there's going to be a final Reckoning and a final battle between good and evil when Jesus returns, but then there's going to be everlasting peace in his kingdom, the lion will lie down with the lamb peace That is the desire of the nations that is a God given desire, how we get there in a temporal sense, how do we promote peace in a temporal sense? Well, that's one thing. That's something we need to have a continued discussion and debate about.

So to put a fine point on it, what do the pacifists, the people who come away maybe watching this film, All Quiet on the Western Front, who are convinced about that will become more convinced about pacifism? What do we say to the Ukrainians right now, as Russia is trying to overwhelm their country. President Zelensky said something on the eve of the invasion which has stuck with me. He gave a warning to the Russians. He said if you come to invade our country, you will, we will confront you with our faces. You will not see our backs; you will see our faces. He was ready. He was ready to go to war to defend the liberties and the freedoms of his nation, and they're still at it.

So what does the pacifist say to the Ukrainians? The pacifist answer is allow yourself to be absorbed by a despotic, fundamentally it seems barbaric regime right now in Vladimir Putin. Well, that's not a very satisfying answer for many people. So I want to affirm the desire for peace. But how we achieve it in an earthly sense is something we need to think long and hard about, from a Christian perspective–or from a humanist perspective, how you preserve human freedom. Because what Lewis and Tolkien both believed was that war–as terrible and wretched as it is–is actually not the worst of evils.

And that's a hard truth for many of us to reckon with, there may be worse things actually than war and combat. Lewis said explicitly in an essay, “Why I am Not a Pacifist,” he laid out his reasons. And he was very clear. As destructive and disheartening as war can be, it is not the worst of evils. And I think we need to kind of reckon with that proposition. That proposition there are worse evils than war.

WHITTEN: What, what would be worse than war? What would he say was worse than war?

LOCONTE: I think Lewis and Tolkien would both say that this surrender, the surrendering of innocent life to a great evil, to be turned into slaves to be used and to manipulate, to be destroyed, that would be a worse evil than trying to fight and resist that. I think that is the message that rings true throughout their works on almost every page.

WHITTEN: Right. And I would say also, I recognized in that film something worse than war that I've actually experienced. And it would be a kind of existentialism where your life has no meaning. You can live, you can eat food, you can go to the bathroom. There's so many bathroom scenes in this film and movie. It's kind of weird, like, bombs and bathrooms. That's how it should be promoted. But the point is that the physical sensations that we have, they're just–what we see, what we hear, the senses, that's all there is.

LOCONTE: Wow, it's deeply materialistic, though. And that's what Lewis and Tolkien were fighting against–a profound materialism that viewed war as the worst of evils. And they said, no, there is a moral spiritual dimension to life. And that means that war is not the worst of evils. Dying with no sense of meaning or purpose, that is a worse evil.

WHITTEN: It would be worse to be me to live the life that I have–which is just wonderful–and not have God, than it would to be Paul, the hero of this film, in hell with God. That's hard to get to. That's and based on some experiences in my life, I've had to wrestle with that. And I think we'll probably always have to–It's like you submit and and you want to follow Christ and you believe that, and then you got to go through like, oh, Lord, I help my unbelief. I don't believe this again. But I look at that movie and I see what it would be like to be in that situation without God.

LOCONTE: Yes, yeah, I can't quote a quote from memory. But there's a beautiful passage in The Lord of the Rings when Sam and Frodo are on, they're in Mount Doom and it's desolate. And they really believe this is the end. They really believe they've lost. At least, Frodo believes it's the end. And they're just waiting for their doom. And Sam looks up. Even as I think about it, I get choked up thinking about it. And he sees light above the dark clouds, light and high beauty beyond their reach, beyond these dark clouds. And it gives a sense of meaning and purpose. It's not for nothing. Their struggle will have a meaning, and it will echo into eternity. That's the message Tolkien is giving. It's not for nothing. Dying with your backs to the wall for a noble cause is not for nothing, because there's a transcendent truth, and that goodness is the ultimate reality. And if we let go of that, then it's all meaningless. That's the existential materialist alternative, which is unacceptable to most of us.

WHITTEN: Right. Thank you so much, Joseph. It's been such a fun conversation.

LOCONTE: Thank you very much.

WHITTEN: Awesome. Thank you again. It's been great talking with you. And I hope you have a wonderful day.

LOCONTE: Great. Let's do it again.

WHITTEN: Thanks so much for your time.

LOCONTE: All right, bye bye.

WHITTEN: Yeah, bye bye.


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