#BookReview: Waco by Jeff Guinn

Precisely Detailed. Needs Better Bibliography. You know that time when a friend has already read an ARC of a book that somewhat interests you and you go on a cruise for your 40th birthday only to come back to an email from the publisher asking if you’d also like to ARC review the same book? A book that happens to be about an event that happened when you were 10 yrs old but which was overshadowed in your own memory by another, much larger and much more directly impactful event (The Storm of the Century in 1993), but you still remember some details of this event itself live? No? Only me? Ok. Well then.

For everyone *else*, this is actually a remarkably detailed book, as Guinn’s histories tend to be (as evidenced by the only other book I’ve read from him – 2021’s War On The Border). Indeed, while only 83% or so of this book is narrative – more on that momentarily – we don’t actually begin the tale of the siege itself until around the 52% mark. Meaning over half of the actual narrative of the book focuses on detailed histories of everything that got us to that particular moment in time at that particular place with these particular players. We get an entire history of the Branch Davidian religion, including how it formed and some other offshoots that seem to have come to play to certain extents. We get a history of the ATF and what exactly it was dealing with in that moment (an embarrassing sex scandal and looming budget hearings, which were rarely ‘friendly’ in the best of times). We get a detailed history of this particular Branch Davidian organization and how it came to be exactly where it was and exactly in the state it was, both physically and mentally, including biographies of the man who came to claim the name “David Koresh” and earlier leaders of the group and their internal rivalries. We get all of this richly detailed setup…

And then we get a near second by second play by play of exactly what went down and when and by whom, told from both sides and clearly showing when the evidence seems to support one side or another and when each side differs in their views and exclusive claims. This is no celebration of the man who called himself “David Koresh”, nor is it a celebration of the various police agencies and politicians and political appointees who executed the raid. Instead, it is a remarkably balanced look at just how these people came to be where they were and what happened when these two groups came to such explosive conflict. It is a remarkable look at how a clearly gifted orator could become so twisted in his own thinking – and use his gifts to twist the beliefs of so many, including some who continued in these beliefs long after the orator himself was dead. It is a remarkable look at the mistakes made by each side of the conflict and just how many points there were where history could have changed for a more peaceable outcome. It is truly a remarkable tale of the entire event seared into the American zeitgeist as simply “Waco”.

And yet, getting back to the 83% narrative bit: It is specifically because the bibliography clocks in a touch short at 17% – 25-40% is a more normal bibliography length in my extensive experience with nonfiction ARCs – that I had to drop the overall rating by a single star. The tale told here is remarkable – but remarkable claims require remarkable evidence, and the cited evidence here needed to be more extensive, at least to this reader.

Still, this is absolutely a book every American should read and understand in full, as this truly was a seminal moment in American history, one that foretold much of what was to come over the next 30 years. Very much recommended.

This review of Waco by Jeff Guinn was originally written on January 27, 2023.