Waco and Iraq – Parallels in Bloodshed

By Michael Hudson, The Roanoke Times

Jayne Docherty, associate professor of conflict studies at EMU
Jayne Docherty, associate professor of conflict studies at EMU

Jayne Docherty, an associate professor of conflict studies at EMU, spent three years studying what went wrong in 1993 in Waco, Texas, during a 51-day standoff that produced one of the bloodiest episodes in U.S. law enforcement history.

She interviewed FBI agents with expertise in standoffs, including one of the Waco siege’s lead negotiators. She read studies and reports. And she pored over more than 12,000 pages of the government’s transcripts of the failed negotiations.

All this led her to the conclusion that government agents and Branch Davidian leaders came to the confrontation with such divergent worldviews that they ended up talking past each other.

The Branch Davidians saw the FBI agents as representatives of an ungodly system. The FBI saw the Davidians as deluded, and couldn’t understand why they would see government bargaining attempts – such as offers to trade media access in exchange for the release of women and children – as offensive and immoral.

As the people on the inside used more biblical language and resisted bargaining, Docherty has written, the people on the outside “concluded the Branch Davidians were more deluded than they had originally thought. As the FBI responded with harsher measures, the Branch Davidians concluded that the United States was more evil than they had originally thought.”

It was, Docherty says, a “clash of worlds” that ended in tragedy – in a conflagration that killed more than 70 men, women and children inside the Branch Davidian complex.

Now, Docherty has turned the lessons she learned from Waco to another conflict – the United States’ campaign to gain military supremacy and win hearts and minds in Iraq. Docherty sees disturbing parallels.

“As I watch what’s going on in Iraq,” she said, “it just looks like the same stuff over again.”

A Bad Situation Made Worse

Both confrontations pitted groups of people with starkly different worldviews against each other, producing an atmosphere ripe for fatal misjudgments. Just as FBI agents couldn’t fathom the religious beliefs of the Branch Davidians, Docherty said, U.S. foreign policy planners proceeded with little understanding of how devout Muslims would react to an American invasion and the chaos that followed.

In recent weeks, she argues, U.S. policy makers made a bad situation worse by attacking the Iraqi holy city of Najaf, the home base of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has led an insurrection against the occupation. Last week U.S.-led forces announced a fragile truce with al-Sadr’s Mahdi militia.

“There’s a failure to recognize that when we fulfill the predictions of this religious leader by invading sacred space,” Docherty said, “more and more people who are on the margins are going to become more radical, because our actions actually validate the worldview of the leaders.”

Similarly, FBI agents in Waco “didn’t understand those Branch Davidians who felt that safety was staying in the sacred space – in the building,” Docherty said. “Safety for them was measured on a sacred scale. The belief is: Even if you die, you’re better off being with God than being outside, living in sin.”

Political leaders don’t have to approve of another group’s religious motivations, she said, but they do have to understand them in order to make informed decisions – “so that you understand what their reactions will be to your actions.”

Docherty is a faculty member at EMU’s Conflict Transformation Program, which brings together scholars, activists and aid workers from around the world to discuss how to prevent violence and help heal the wounds after it happens. She’s drawn on a number of perspectives as she’s watched events unfold in Iraq – as an ex-Army brat who grew up steeped in military culture, as a one-time member of an outside-the-mainstream Catholic community, as a scholar who studies confrontations between government authorities and unconventional religious groups.

Docherty’s book on the Waco standoff – “Learning Lessons from Waco: When the Parties Bring Their Gods to the Negotiation Table” – was published by Syracuse University Press. She is currently working on a book about “how we get authentic security in an age of terrorism,” which will incorporate her analysis of the war in Iraq.

Clash Between Good and Evil

In comparing Waco and Iraq, she cautions that there are many differences between the Branch Davidians’ Christian millennialism and the Islamic religious beliefs of those who are fighting to end the U.S. presence in Iraq. But a common thread, she said, is the conviction that life is a clash between good and evil and “you must chose between the two.”

In a world that’s changing rapidly thanks to globalization, she said, many Christians, Muslims and Jews are grasping for identity and meaning. Some embrace a belief that “the world is a mess, it’s evil and the way you handle that is to be faithful to a higher law; if you follow that law, the world will be transformed and become right – or at least you’ll get saved.”

In the case of Iraq, she said, the “good vs. evil” narrative is embraced not only by those who are fighting the occupation, but also by U.S. leaders who see their adversaries simply as evildoers, rather than as people who are striking out because they’re frightened by events they can’t control.

In a speech in March, President Bush called the war on terrorism “an inescapable calling of our generation. The terrorists are offended not merely by our policies – they are offended by our existence as free nations. No concession will appease their hatred. No accommodation will satisfy their endless demands.”

Docherty said some religious leaders in Iraq are trying to exercise a moderating influence, but there’s been little discussion in America about how we chose to paint all our opponents as unmitigatedly evil.

“I think the prison abuse scandal has opened the door for that kind of discussion in a way that it wasn’t opened before,” she said. But that discussion won’t last, she added, if the media and Congressional leaders define the problem as the deeds of a clique of renegade, low-ranking troops.

On the ground, she said, American policy makers have heightened tensions because they have failed to understand that providing security requires not only force but also real efforts at nationbuilding. This would include greater efforts to restore Iraq’s physical infrastructure and a commitment to building a political infrastructure that takes into account Iraqis’ history and culture.

The ‘Get-Tough’ Approach

“You basically have two approaches to policing – the SWAT team approach or the community policing approach – and we went with the SWAT,” Docherty said.

Some commentators view a get-tough approach as exactly what’s needed. William Arkin, a military analyst who writes for the Los Angeles Times, argues that America actually underestimated the need for force in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s ouster. “As far back as memory extends for most Iraqis, the spoils (and the power) have gone to the tough,” Arkin wrote in April. “Brutality – and the fear it inspires – have been the central organizing principle of Iraqi society. That can’t just be turned off overnight. … In the short term, force may be necessary, because it is what Iraqis understand.”

Docherty, in contrast, argues that the only way to begin
to make the transition from violence to order is to rachet down the use of force, and to internationalize the work of nationbuilding by bringing in the United Nations.

“I’m not some naive person who says, ‘If we were nice everything would be OK,'” she said. “The threats are very real. And the people who are suffering are the Iraqi people on the ground who are caught in the crossfire. And our troops, too, who are also caught in the crossfire. Lots of times they don’t understand where it’s coming from.”

She said this week’s announcement that nine Iraqi militias would lay down arms as part of a rewards and retraining program is a hopeful sign. But whether the deal holds depends on whether U.S. and Iraqi leadership can maintain a consistent posture, “which has been lacking on the ground there.”

Beyond that, she said, there’s still a complicated mix of groups from inside and outside Iraq – including al-Qaida – that will continue to press the fight.

To end the violence and bring stability, she said, “we have to start sorting out who’s motivated by what factors. Violence is interactive. That means any time you want to talk about reducing violence you have to look at everybody involved – including yourself.”

reprinted with permission of The Roanoke Times