Rambo and Revelation

Malise Ruthven

  • Fire and Blood: The True Story of David Koresh and the Waco Siege by David Leppard
    Fourth Estate, 182 pp, £5.99, June 1993, ISBN 1 85702 166 5
  • Preacher of Death: The Shocking Inside Story of David Koresh and the Waco Siege by Martin King and Marc Breault
    Signet, 375 pp, £4.99, May 1993, ISBN 0 451 18000 3

Eighty-six people died in the Waco siege in April, including the ‘prophet’ David Koresh and 17 children fathered by him. David Leppard, a crime reporter with the Sunday Times Insight team who covered the Waco story, describes well and knowledgeably the appalling build-up of weapons in the compound of the Branch Davidians’ ranch and the information and assumptions that led the two law enforcement agencies involved – the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and the FBI – to make a series of disastrous errors. Fire and Blood, however, does not properly explain the religious background to the tragedy and therefore fails to account for Koresh’s hold over his followers. Preacher of Death has the advantage of Marc Breault’s contribution. Breault, a senior member of the Branch Davidians who defected in 1989, was the prime instigator of the legal moves that culminated in the ATF raid last February. Martin King, an Australian television reporter who interviewed Koresh before the siege, has in-corporated into his narrative parts of Breault’s original diary, as well as extensive interviews with him.

The Jonestown massacre in Guyana in 1978, in which the leader of the People’s Temple, the Reverend Jim Jones, persuaded nine hundred of his followers to join him in suicide by drinking Cool-Aid laced with cyanide, is a constant reminder of the dangers to which the charismatic leaders of cults – or New Religious Movements, to use the more neutral term – can expose their followers and their followers’ children. The Texan authorities, the ATF and the FBI were given repeated warnings that Koresh might respond to an attack by bringing about the collective suicide of his followers. Breault began his campaign to alert the authorities immediately after he left the Mount Carmel ranch in 1989. In Texas he got almost nowhere: the Sheriff’s Department in Waco dismissed his warnings as ‘sour grapes’, the local media were indifferent, and it was only after he’d contacted the father of one of the children in the compound that he began to make any headway in the United States. David Jewell, who was fighting a custody suit with his ex-wife Sherri (one of Koresh’s ‘wives’), warned at least two Congressmen in March 1992 that Koresh had plans for mass suicide and this information seems to have been passed to the FBI. Yet Breault was not contacted by the Bureau until March this year, after the siege began. He made better progress in Australia, receiving co-operation from the media and from the official Seventh-Day Adventist Church: Koresh had recruited members of the Church in Australia as well as Britain. The US Embassy in Australia wired the State Department that mass suicide at the ranch was imminent and that Koresh would kill anyone who tried to arrest him.

The siege itself was prompted by the killing of four ATF agents and the wounding of 16 others when the Agency tried to attack the ranch, which contained a massive stockpile of weapons. The raid, carried out by scantily armed ATF agents, was ill-judged from the start. The ranch’s arsenal included fully automatic rifles, grenades and a grenade-launcher, mortars, a 50-caliber machine-gun and over a million rounds of ammunition. In Texas, 17 million people own 68 million guns and many of the weapons on the ranch were acquired perfectly legally from mail-order companies, though modifications to make the rifles fully automatic were illegal. After the ATF fiasco, the FBI were brought in, along with the Bureau’s Hostage Rescue Team (HRT). As Leppard suggests, the tactic of using the HRT was highly questionable: the ‘team had been trained to rescue hostages, defined as innocent civilians held by criminals against their will. The unique problem that the Bureau faced at Waco was that nearly all those inside the compound wanted to remain there. From the outset there were no guarantees that any wanted to escape – even if the HRT gave them the chance.’

At first the FBI negotiators were respectful, arranging for Koresh to make an hour-long religious broadcast on local radio. In return he allowed the departure of about three dozen people, including 21 children. After this moment of glory, however, Koresh appeared – in the words of one of the psychiatrists used by the FBI – ‘increasingly delusional and also highly deceptive and manipulative’. The remaining children, he told the investigators, were different from those he had let go, because he had sired them himself. The negotiators became increasingly exasperated. They cut off the electricity, and using the tactic that had successfully flushed General Noriega from the Vatican Embassy in Panama, they blasted the compound with a hellish cacophony of sounds, ranging from screaming rabbits to Buddhist chants. The FBI director, William Sessions, began to worry that his men were suffering from fatigue. Concluding that no more cult members would be released, Sessions and Janet Reno, the newly-appointed Attorney-General who was in overall charge of the operation, decided to smoke out the Branch Davidians using CS gas. President Clinton personally approved the decision. The authorities knew the inmates had gas masks, but believed that the discomfort of wearing them would eventually force them to leave the compound. The result was the apocalypse witnessed by millions on television.

Four hours after the armoured vehicles broke through the flimsy compound wall and began, spraying the interior with CS gas, fire broke out. Arson investigators later concluded that it had been started deliberately. Only nine people survived. Twenty-seven of the charred corpses examined afterwards had bullet wounds, including that of Koresh, who died from a single shot to the head. Not all the injuries conformed to those normally found in suicides. As the fire spread, fanned by the prairie winds, people seem to have shot each other out of desperation. Very few tried to escape. The FBI tactics had involved a critical misjudgment. Even after the fire started it would have been possible to get out through the holes knocked in the compound wall by the FBI’s tanks. The truth, as Leppard suggests, is that ‘the opportunity to escape had been presented. But it was simply not taken.’ Leppard believes that a more sudden attack, using greater force, might have succeeded in capturing and neutralising Koresh and his lieutenants. This was not attempted because of Reno’s concern for the safety of the children. But the real mistake was to have regarded the threats of Armageddon as bluff.

Everyone ... was convinced that family values would save the day. They felt certain that the maternal instincts of those cult members who were mothers would put their children’s lives before loyalty to Koresh. Nobody in authority understood that Koresh had long ago overridden such feelings. Nobody realised that he had made his people want to sacrifice themselves for his ‘lights’.

It is hard to imagine how the FBI had got it so wrong. Leppard informs us that by April FBI agents had ‘travelled the world interviewing more than sixty former cult members, looking for fresh insights into the mind of the cult leader and his lieutenants. In total it consulted a dozen psychiatrists and several more religious scholars in a vain attempt to anticipate the cult leader’s likely course of action.’ He suggests that there were flaws in their understanding of Koresh’s theology and that the scholars they consulted were too modernist and liberal in their interpretations to be of much assistance. It would not have been difficult to avoid these mistakes. Texas – the home of Dallas Theological Seminary – is teeming with specialists in the apocalyptic.

Most American fundamentalists – about eight million people according to a 1977 survey – are firmly committed to the belief that the prophetic books of the Bible accurately foretell future events. Hal Lindsay’s Late Great Planet Earth describes in detail the appalling accidents in the air and on the freeways that will occur when those who are ‘born again’ are raptured bodily to Christ, as predicted in the Book of Revelation – and, with thirty million copies in print, has outsold by many times the books that make it onto the bestseller list. Such believers in prophecy are known as Pre-Millennialists: their reading of the end-times predicts that the Second Coming will precede the Millennium, the thousand year rule of Christ on earth. Most mainstream Churches have interpreted these passages in Revelation as an allegory of Christian life, but others of a more evangelical disposition hold the Post-Millennialist view that Christ will return only after the Millennium, when humans have set the world to rights. Post-Millennialism has inspired a great deal of evangelical action in American history, from the abolitionist and temperance campaigns of the last century to the ‘social gospel’ and tenement reforms of the Thirties. Koresh often sounded rambling and incoherent, and his behaviour was difficult to predict: but to anyone versed in the apocalyptic traditions of American Protestantism, his voice was familiar.

The Adventist tradition to which Koresh belonged dates back to the Millerite movement and the Great Disappointment that followed the failure of William Miller’s prediction that Christ would return on 22 October 1844. Although Miller retired into obscurity, one of his leading disciples, Hiram Edson, mitigated the disappointment on claiming that he had seen a vision of Christ beginning a new work in Heaven, one later termed ‘investigative judgment’. The new theology, completed under visionary inspiration by Ellen White, took the Seventh-Day Adventists down the path from Pre- to Post-Millennialism trodden by other millenarian movements such as the Mormons. Since Christ would not come down until humanity cleaned up its act, people had first to purify themselves, spiritually by strict observance of the sabbath, physically by eating healthy foods and reducing their intake of meat. (While preparing for Christ’s return Mrs White’s protégé, the nutritionist John Kellogg, developed a special vegetarian diet of processed corn, transforming Battle Creek, Michigan, where the Seventh-Day Adventists had their headquarters, into the Breakfast Food Capital of the World.)

Like Mormonism, Seventh-Day Adventism is now a respectable this-worldly religion that places a strong emphasis on diet, health, foreign evangelism and good works. But it is still linked theologically to its millenarian roots, and, like Mormonism, it is vulnerable to the teaching of prophets who try to reclaim some of the movement’s original chiliastic fervour. In 1930, 15 years after the death of Ellen White, a Bulgarian immigrant, Victor Houteff moved to Waco, Texas with a fundamentalist faction – the Davidian Seventh-Day Adventists – recruited mainly in Southern California. He reinterpreted passages in Ezekiel 9 and in Ellen White’s writings, using them to support the idea of a theocracy under his leadership; and with his followers taught that God would slaughter all the Seventh-Day Adventists who refused to accept his message. Some members of the sect believed that God would entrust them with this work of purification. After Houteff’s death in 1955 leadership of the sect was assumed by his widow, Florence, who taught that her husband would be resurrected in 1959, to restore the kingdom of David. The unbelieving Adventists of the official Church would all be slaughtered; the faithful would be miraculously transported to Israel, where Houteff would be crowned king. In 1959 more than a thousand Davidians met at New Mount Carmel in Waco to await the fulfilment of this prophecy and their deliverance into God’s Kingdom. Like the original Millerites, many had abandoned homes and jobs to be at Mount Carmel at the appointed time.

When this prophecy resulted in a Second Disappointment a number of factions, each with its own prophet, squabbled over the relics of the movement. The most successful group was led by Ben Roden; and his faction, the Branch Davidian Seventh-Day Adventists, eventually acquired the Houteff property at New Mount Carmel. Roden identified himself with the prophet Elijah and the ‘man whose name is the Branch’ predicted in Zechariah 6, the priest-king who would restore the Temple in Jerusalem and rule from God’s throne. According to the constitution drafted by Roden as President of the Branch Davidian Seventh-Day Adventist Association, all ‘legal, moral and scriptural ownership and rights of the Association, all its assets and holdings’ were held in his possession, to be used ‘for the furtherance of the Association’s work at home and abroad’. Roden had himself crowned king at Mount Carmel, in anticipation of his translation to Israel. After Roden’s death in 1978, his widow, Lois, became leader of the sect. Although some members left, disputing the news she received from a vision in 1977 that the Holy Spirit was female, she succeeded in attracting new members, and became quite a well-known figure. She was on first-name terms with several television preachers, including Pat Robertson, Jim Bakker and Jerry Falwell, as well as Ferdinand Marcos, and the Branch Davidian magazine, Shekinah, acquired a large international circulation.

Verrnon Howell – who later named himself David Koresh – joined the Branch Davidians in 1981, having been expelled from the official Seventh-Day Adventist Church after claiming on the basis of a vision that God had given him the pastor’s teenage daughter as his wife. Though already married to another teenager, Howell became the 68-year-old Lois Roden’s lover and managed to convince her that he had made her pregnant, like Abraham’s Sarah, thanks to divine intervention. After a macabre power struggle with Lois’s son, who challenged Howell to prove his Messianic claims by bringing a corpse back to life, Howell succeeded Lois as leader of the sect.

Koresh’s megalomania and sexual appetite grew in tandem once he had assumed power, as King and Breault make abundantly clear. His regime became increasingly repressive, with boot-camp style military training at 5.30 a.m., lengthy sessions of Bible study and sadistic punishment of children who acted disobediently. Ellen White’s dietary rules were turned upside down, subject to Koresh’s sudden caprices:

Life at mealtimes was a nightmare for the cooks. One day bananas were the most nutritious fruit God created. The next they were banned because he feared pesticide poisoning. Oranges could be eaten with grapes at the same meal, but not with raisins. Fruit could not be eaten with vegetables, unless the vegetable was freshly cooked corn or the fruits were lemons, pineapples or avocados. Apples could be eaten with vegetables provided they were stewed first, as Vernon believed the chemistry of the apple changed when cooked.

Koresh controlled all the money earned by members who worked outside the ranch, giving him an income of about half a million dollars a year, in addition to the funds made available by a wealthy businessman who had joined the group. Much of this money was spent on recording equipment, in an unsuccessful attempt to launch himself as a rock star. Koresh’s power was buttressed by the Mighty Men, an élite group of armed praetorians who obeyed his every whim. He believed that God had given him the right to sleep with any of the women he chose, including girls as young as 13. The parents of girls who joined the sect connived in his plans to make them ‘brides of Christ’. They were told that after the apocalypse, their daughters would reign at his side as Queens of the Universe. At the Branch Davidian centre in Southern California, known as the White House, the females slept together in a dormitory, waiting to be invited into Koresh’s bed. According to Breault, the women vied with each other to offer themselves, with 13-year-olds smugly queening it over their older sisters. In 1989 God told Koresh to choose any of the women married to other men in the group for himself. ‘All you men are just fuckers, that’s all you are. You married without getting God’s permission. Even worse, you married my wives. God gave them to me first. So now I’m taking them back.’ Koresh – who now saw himself as the Lamb of the Book of Revelation – was to be the only man allowed to populate the universe with his seed. Most of the men – and their partners – complied.

There is no doubt that Koresh was sex-obsessed, but it is trivialising his motivation to label him, as Leppard does, a ‘paedophile’ and an ‘unrelenting and sophisticated sexual predator’. Prophets give as well as take, playing, consciously or not, on the unconscious desires and latent aspirations of their followers. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, violated conventional sexual norms in an almost identical way to Koresh, and with similar results. Both believed they were carrying out God’s instructions, and in both cases, to refuse the prophet was tantamount to disobeying a divine command. Like Joseph Smith, Koresh convinced himself and his followers that the voice of his desire was the voice of God.

His followers, the great majority of whom were born and raised in the Adventist tradition, were trapped by their belief in prophets in general, as much as by their belief Koresh himself. One of the most impressive things in Breault’s narrative is his description of how difficult he found it to break away from his belief in Koresh as Messiah, even after he had begun to hate him for his manic selfishness and sadism. There is also a sense in which Koresh himself was caught in the same trap:

ATF: Does Vernon really believe all this religious stuff, or is he just a con man?

Breault: I think a little of both. Vernon gets a craving. He finds the theology to justify that craving. When others buy into his doctrine, he starts believing it himself.

At least eight million Americans believe that Revelation holds the key to an imminent catastrophe in which they will be saved super-naturally while the rest of the world perishes. Like so many other prophets who flourish on American soil, Koresh translated Kingdom Come into Kingdom Now. The cult he headed did not spring fully armed out of a madman’s head: it conformed to well-established patterns found in religious traditions throughout the world, but particularly in the United States, where the state is as reluctant to interfere in religion as it is to limit the right to bear arms. In Texas especially, Rambo and Revelation are natural bedfellows. Mormons – like Muslims – would have died for their prophet: it may have been in recognition of this that Joseph Smith, a more far-sighted, humane and intelligent man than Koresh, surrendered to the authorities at Carthage, Illinois in 1844, in circumstances very similar to those preceding the tragic events at Waco. Faced with the hosts of Antichrist in the shape of the ATF and the FBI, Koresh chose to annul the Great Disappointment. The faithful were raptured in fire and smoke and bullets, to reign forever with Christ – and his brides – in heaven.