The Ashes of Waco

Ten years and nine months ago, the United States scored a victory in a brief war against a now-nearly-forgotten tyrant in a biblical locale. Our enemy of was a dictator, officialdom claimed, who threatened his followers, his neighbors and the United States. According the usual sources and the stenographic press, he was also manufacturing chemicals and weapons of a prohibited kind. He had to be captured our killed. The government sent helicopters and Ninja-men to bring about regime change.

The tyrant whom we toppled was David Koresh, the Saddam Hussein of, if not the Middle East, of Middle Texas at least. If Waco had been the Middle East, Koresh would have been its Saddam.

Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms assaulted Koresh’s kingdom, Mt. Carmel, on Feb. 28, 1993. They were greeted with gunshots, not flowers. The ATF raiders suffered casualties and executed a retreat, but within hours FBI agents in Army tanks encircled Koresh’s ramshackle residence, the better to protect themselves from the armed fundamentalists inside. Having so swiftly occupied Mt. Carmel, without a strategy for exit, rotation or colonization, after 51 days the gendarmes ran out of patience and rammed their tanks into Koresh’s dormitory-style home, which they had dubbed “the compound.” It suddenly burst into flames, live on television screens. The long and short of the affair was that four ATF agents and some 90 Mt. Carmelites–two dozen of them, mere children-needlessly died.

The intelligence information that lay behind the invasion was dated, imprecise, and in some particulars, plainly false. Koresh had probably undertaken a program to convert AR-15 rifles to automatic fire. But though shadowy Mt. Carmel exiles claimed to have seen three or four such weapons before the raid, none were ever demonstrably found. And the intelligence information behind the grandest tale told to justify the government’s aggression–that Koresh and his Davidians were operating a methamphetamine lab–was discredited even before it was foisted onto an eager press. Mt. Carmel in ruins provided no evidence that it had ever been a danger to the United States, or for that matter, to its neighbors, most of whom, though somewhat relieved that Koresh was gone, told reporters that they thought the invasion highly uncalled-for. On top of that, a few charged, the government’s helicopters had frightened their cattle.

There are, of course, important differences in scale between the assault on Mt. Carmel and the invasion of Iraq, both roundly popular at their onsets. But at least two of the differences diminish the comfort conveyed by the word.

First, Saddam didn’t die in his compound, as did Koresh. He is now going to trial, counting among his counsels the former U.S. attorney general, Ramsey Clark, who also represents the survivors of Koresh.

Second, on Nov. 10, in remarks at a little-reported conference held by Hofstra University, former President Bill Clinton told an audience that “We should have waited them out … It was a mistake and I’m responsible.”

He was talking about the Koresh and the Davidians, not Saddam and the Republican Guard.

George Bush has not yet apologized for invading Iraq with no more forethought, cunning or consideration that Clinton’ government showed in Waco. For presidents and serial killers, I suppose, the road to remorse is steep and long.

But perhaps ten years and eight months after Saddam dies in a captivity that, as with Koresh, our government engineered, former President Bush will make an apology, too. Presidents of the United States can accomplish remarkable feats, it’s true. But removing thrones from biblical lands does not appear to be one of their strengths.

DICK J. REAVIS is an assistant professor of English at North Carolina State University, and author of The Ashes of Waco. He can be reached at:


Dick J. Reavis is a Texas journalist and the author of The Ashes of Waco.