Waco Lessons for War

What evil can do

By David B. Kopel & Paul H. Blackman, NRA-ILA. Kopel and Blackman are coauthors of No More Wacos: What's Wrong with Federal Law Enforcement and How to Fix It

National Review Online, November 6, 2001 9:50 a.m.

The Pentagon and elite opinion seem surprised that the Taliban continue to fight with determination — in marked contrast to the Iraqi army of 1991, which promised "the mother of all battles," but which waged war like a bunch of second-grade girls. The Pentagon, and the American public, need to remember how determined pure evil can be. Consider the lessons taught by the tenacious followers of another evil man: David Koresh.

Part of what went wrong at Waco was a failure to understand that people sincerely devoted to evil will behave quite differently ordinary criminals and thugs. The ATF's plan for the Waco raid was to use a 76-person attack squad with machine guns, grenades and helicopters to "serve" a search warrant for the Branch Davidian home/church, and an arrest warrant for David Koresh.

Before the raid began, the ATF learned that the Davidians knew that a ATF attack was coming. (A TV cameraman apparently tipped off a mailman, who happened to be Koresh's brother-in-law.) Visiting the Branch Davidian home was a potential "convert" whom the Branch Davidians well knew to be a ATF undercover agent. Koresh made a point of telling the "convert" that the ATF would be attacking imminently. The undercover agent promptly called his supervisors, and warned them that Koresh knew the raiders were coming. The commanders went ahead with the assault anyway.

As the agent in charge of the Waco operation explained: "in almost every situation where we use a rapid entry and an overwhelming force, and what we think is overwhelming firepower ... people surrender rather than fight law enforcement." In one famous case, a hundred and fifty members of a California motorcycle gang had advance notice that ATF was coming, but surrendered anyway. Drug dealers, gang-bangers, and other street thugs turn out to have a pretty pragmatic view about making sure that they stay alive, once they see a large law-enforcement force deployed against them.

What ATF refused to consider at Waco was that the Davidians were sincere in their strange religious beliefs. The ATF undercover agent, as well as the apostate Branch Davidians whom the ATF had interviewed, all told the ATF that the Branch Davidians fully expected to be massacred at the hands of "Babylon" (the American government).

The Davidians intended to become martyrs and enter into heaven, where each of the men would have a "perfect" mate, made from the feminine part of his being — compensation, perhaps, for the men having allowed Koresh to steal their earthly wives.

And so when the ATF attacked, the Branch Davidians fought back, killing three federal agents (plus one more agent probably killed by friendly fire). The Davidians forced the ATF agents to throw up their hands and retreat from the compound. The greatest show of force in ATF history had turned into the most humiliating defeat in ATF history — in part because ATF's opponents fought with the zeal of martyrs.

When the FBI took over, the commanders continued to assume that mere physical might would overcome the Davidian will to resist. Again, the government refused to take the religious beliefs of the Branch Davidians seriously. The Branch Davidians got the same kind of treatment that Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega had received when he took refuge in an embassy: Electricity was cut off. High-volume loudspeakers blasted annoying music, as well as the sounds of rabbits being slaughtered, and other "psywar" sounds. Noriega found the whole experience so unpleasant that he surrendered, thus improving his standard of living by getting some peace and quiet in a jail cell. But Manuel Noriega was simply a successfully criminal who had managed to take over a country for a while. The Branch Davidians, subjected to the same treatment, drew closer, and grew all the more convinced of the truth of Koresh's prophecies.

Eventually, the FBI, with the assistance of Delta Force, stormed the Branch Davidian home. They saturated the building with CS chemical warfare agent — so intensely that several people died from respiratory failure caused by methylene chloride, the carrying compound for the CS agent.

The FBI knew that the adults had gas masks, but the children didn't. The FBI expected that the intense, wrenching suffering of the children would motivate the mothers to bring them out of the building. Alternatively, the FBI hoped that when the mothers started getting hit with the CS (once the gas-mask filters were used up), the mothers would abandon their children, and run out of the building.

Certainly, ordinary criminals would have fled the building after a few minutes of CS attack. In U.S. army training exercises, soldiers exposed to a concentrated indoor CS environment quickly attempt to escape. But the Branch Davidians did not. Not one of them left the building after hours of CS attack. Even when the building turned into an inferno, only a few of them fled. As the Branch Davidians saw things, they faced a choice: a few final hours of suffering on earth, followed by an eternity in Heaven — or an eternity in Hell, for deserting their prophet in the moment of greatest crisis.

It didn't matter that the Branch Davidian religion, as expounded by David Koresh, was a false religion. It didn't matter whether Koresh himself was entirely sincere (he had a habit of revising religious doctrine in order to expand his sexual access). What did matter was that the Branch Davidians were sincere. Faced with martyrdom or damnation, they chose martyrdom.

The Iraqis were no Branch Davidians. Iraq is simply a kleptocracy, and loyalty to Saddam means nothing more than loyalty to the man who has the most immediate power to punish disloyalty.

Now, the Department of Defense is reportedly disappointed in the positive but not immediately decisive results of their bombing raids on Taliban forces in Afghanistan. DOD, we are told, can't understand why the Taliban is fighting on despite the fact that they cannot possibly win the conflict, and DOD is surprised that Taliban forces are not switching sides.

But the Taliban aren't the Iraqi army. Taliban's core is graduates of the Saudi-funded Madrassas, the hate academies of northern Pakistan. Like the Germans soldiers who fought quite effectively for Hitler's army — even in 1945, when it was clear that the war was lost — the Taliban army includes many sincere dupes of the forces of Evil, the products of an education system founded on hate. Like the deluded Branch Davidians expecting their perfect mate in Heaven, the bin Laden terrorists (as well as Hamas terrorists) look forward to death and their reward of 72 black-eyed virgins in paradise.

There's nothing wrong with religious (or other) devotion to a cause, even when faced with overwhelming force. Churchill would never have surrendered to Hitler, even if the British faced certain defeat. In fighting against bin Laden, or Hitler, or Stalin we rightly expect Americans and American soldiers to resist at all costs — and not to switch sides depending on who's winning. The problem isn't devotion; it's when devotion is used in the service of evil — including bin Ladenism, a modern version of Hitlerism.

Nothing we're saying is an argument against relentless air and land war on al Qaeda and the Taliban. What we are saying is that our government's actions should be based on a realistic understanding that many followers of the Evil One are sincere in their hate-filled apocalyptic beliefs. They contrast markedly to the soldiers who followed Saddam Hussein and Manuel Noriega only as long as Hussein and Noriega appeared powerful. We should not make the foolish assumption that sincerely religious evildoers will behave in the same way as ordinary criminals or Iraqi soldiers, whose primary goal is self-preservation.

Share this page:

Kopel RSS feed Click the icon to get RSS/XML updates of this website, and of Dave's articles.

Follow Dave on Twitter.

Kopel's Law & Liberty News. Twice-daily web newspaper collecting articles from Kopel and those whom he follows on Twitter.

Author page on Amazon.

Search Kopel website:

Make a donation to support Dave Kopel's work in defense of constitutional rights and public safety.
Donate Now!

Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily representing the views of the Independence Institute or as an attempt to influence any election or legislative action. Please send comments to Independence Institute, 727 East 16th Ave., Colorado 80203. Phone 303-279-6536. (email) webmngr @ i2i.org

Copyright © 2018