BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE MOVE and the Tragedy of Philadelphia By John Anderson and Hilary Hevenor Norton. 409 pp. $18.95

On one side are cranes, bulldozers, helicopters, giant water-firing cannons, an arsenal of guns and high explosives, scores of vehicles and 600 men. Among them are members of bomb disposal and explosives technical teams, equipped for all the emergencies (and all the occasions for killing that Rambo might encounter in excursions behind enemy lines) -- "jump suit, combat boots, Bomb Squad cap and gas mask ... a .357 magnum, a 9-mm city-issued Model 39 automatic pistol with two extra magazines, a mini-Uzi submachine gun with four magazines, a Marine Corps K-Bar knife, demolition tools, a half-mile light and a flashlight, two canteens of water, a gas mask, a military backpack and a pepper-fogger."

The enemy is a barricaded row house in west Philadelphia containing seven adults and six children. The inhabitants of the house are considered armed and dangerous because they are members of a group called MOVE. An earlier confrontation with police resulted in the death of one policeman and life sentences for nine MOVE members convicted of murder and conspiracy. That and a continuing series of nasty clashes between MOVE members and official Philadelphia perhaps explain the show of force by police when they decide to serve warrants on some of those inside 6221 Osage Ave. But why such massive force? And what justified pushing the button that turned loose this army on the men, women and children trapped inside?

"Burning Down the House" is a lucid, highly readable attempt to chronicle the anatomy of an atrocity: the extermination on May 13, 1985, of 11 human beings by bullets, bomb and fire. The authors begin with the founding of MOVE in Philadelphia in the early '70s, when a black man, Vincent Leapheart (John Africa) and Donald Glassey, a white college instructor, formulated an antiestablishment, Rousseauian philosophy that challenged the supremacy of the technological imperatives controlling society, poisoning the air and water, eroding the quality of life. The book ends in 1986 with the trial of Ramona Africa, the only adult survivor of the police assault on Osage Avenue.

Thoroughly documented and ably written, the story of MOVE unfolds in a narrative any fictional account would be hard-pressed to equal. The writers achieve an admirable balance of objective reporting with editorial comment and allow the reader to negotiate on his or her own a maze of police reports, commission findings, interviews with participants, court records and opinion. The account is absorbing; we learn more and less than we want to know, and are left stunned, bewildered, unsatisfied, angry.

Why? Because as the book makes clear, nothing adds up. The massacre didn't have to happen. Why didn't someone step forward and stop the killing? Why wasn't there a hero? Why wasn't there someone there to point out that the "enemy" was helpless in the face of the firepower arrayed against him, that force can kill and quell but not convince, that our society is listing dangerously toward a mindless conformity in which outrageous exercises of power against those who don't conform have become commonplace?

One of the virtues (also occasionally a blemish) of "Burning Down the House" is its authors' decision to allow protagonists to speak for themselves. Mayor Wilson Goode strings together cliche's -- "You don't go back and cry over spilled milk. We are all very big people, and we have to understand that sometimes we win and sometimes we lose" -- always painfully inappropriate, never completing a thought, never dignifying what's said with the possibility that he feels it. Birdie Africa, the child who survived the fire, speaks with a haunting minimalism: "Phil's skin was melting." Delbert Africa drowns us in waves of incantatory obscenity.

A war of words emerges, a competition understood best not in light of ideology or conventional morality and politics but in the timeless realm of myth, folklore and archetype. With the aid of bullhorns and electronic amplifiers, MOVE is the Signifying Monkey goading the Lion. Badmouthing the mayor, the system, haranguing their neighbors, MOVE people used words as weapons because they had no other alternatives. The downtrodden, the oppressed, whether slaves, peasants, prisoners or dispossessed victims of colonization, employ language, song, dance and style as a means of access to an invisible world where roles are reversed. Words are truly magic because they can thwart and ultimately usurp the master's authority. MOVE's folly was to carry this survival technique too far, to get the world of talk mixed up with the world of sticks and stones. When the monkey begins to believe his own rap, he leans too far out of his tree; when he hits the ground, the lion pounces.

The trouble is that the MOVE story is not a folk tale about lions and monkeys. It's about human beings who have lost the capacity to speak each other's language. The city of Philadelphia grew tired of being baited, of being called a beast. Or it had been a beast all along. Or it decided to transform itself into a beast in order to end the ceaseless buzz and worry in its ear. Or ...

No atrocity can ever be explained by referring only to the actual participants. What horrifies and finally pushes us back from attempting to answer the question "why" is the fact that we are implicated. The deed is done, yes, and we are capable of doing it.

The reviewer, winner of the 1984 PEN/Faulkner Award for his novel "Sent for You Yesterday," is the author of the forthcoming novel "Reuben."