Review: On Sheep, Wolves & Sheepdogs

Lt Col Grossman

Most of the people I talk to that are familiar with “On Sheep, Wolves & Sheepdogs”, heard it in the movie “American Sniper” (Chris Kyle’s father explains it to his sons at the dinner table). The movie just gives a summary of Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s “On Sheep, Wolves & Sheepdogs” from his book “On Combat”; if you haven’t read the whole thing (which I highly recommend you do) you can do so here or here. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman is an internationally recognized scholar, author, soldier, and speaker who is one of the world’s foremost experts in the field of human aggression and the roots of violence and violent crime. Two of his books (“On Killing” and “On Combat”) are on the USMC Commandant’s required reading list.

Lt. Col. Grossman relates the views of a Vietnam Veteran (a retired Colonel) that separates people into one of three categories: Sheep, Wolves and Sheepdogs. While simple, his observations are very accurate and helps to show the perspective of these three distinct type of people in our society. Some of you will realize which category you are in when reading it, others will find that it puts into words the way they have felt for a long time.

The three categories of people and their descriptions.

Sheep- First off (as explained in the original writing) I want to be clear that there is no negative connotation to being in this category. Sheep are described as “kind, gentle and productive members of society”. They won’t harm one another intentionally and don’t have a capacity for violence (this is true of the vast majority of people). They just want to be productive and live their lives in peace. This is by far the largest group in our society.

Wolves- The wolves are predators that, “feed on the flock without mercy”. They are the bad guys. There are evil people out there that will do evil things with no regard whatsoever for the damage that they cause others. They hurt, rape and kill and have a great capacity for violence. They are not swayed in the least by pleas for mercy. If you don’t want to accept that this evil exists or you would prefer not to think about it, you are a sheep.

Sheepdogs- Sheepdogs “live to protect the flock and confront the wolf”. Our members of the Military and Law Enforcement are our most visible sheepdogs. There are also many more sheepdogs out there that do not wear a uniform everyday, such as our veterans and other private citizens that are ready and willing to to rise up and confront the wolf when the flock is threatened. The sheepdog also has the capacity for violence, but unlike the wolf, he has a deep love for his fellow citizens.

In the perspective of the sheep, the thought of violence is repulsive. It is such a foreign concept to the sheep, that most just ignore the evil or pretend it doesn’t exist. Denial is their defense. Think about it, how outraged would these people be if they discovered that their child’s school didn’t have working fire extinguishers, smoke detectors or a functioning sprinkler system? Their child is much more likely to be harmed by an act of violence at school than a fire, but the thought of an armed officer or teacher at school makes them uneasy. Having armed individuals at their child’s school would mean that they would have to admit that the evil exists and is real.

The sheep’s aversion to violence also causes them to be uncomfortable with the sheepdog. The sheepdog is not only a constant reminder that evil exists, but he embodies some of the same attributes as the wolf. Both have fangs (weapons) and the capacity for violence. To the sheep, this makes both appear to be very scary and unsettling.

The wolf has a totally different perspective. Like a true predator, he looks for the easiest way to get what he wants. There have been a lot of interviews with violent offenders that describe the way they choose their victims. Nearly all of them say that they choose those that appear weak and unaware to victimize. If they come across someone that gives them any indication that they will fight, they pass them up and wait for easier pickings. Most are looking to get something or satisfy a need, they are not looking for a battle with an equally matched adversary.

The sheepdog’s perspective is different than the sheep’s in that, “the sheep pretend the wolf will never come, but the sheepdog lives for that day.” The sheepdog wakes up everyday knowing that the wolf is out there and is prepared and willing to face him. The sheepdog doesn’t long for this confrontation out of bloodlust, but out of a need and desire to protect his fellow citizens and loved ones from evil. He hopes that he is there to prevent them from facing the ugliness and horror of evil.

I agree with Lt. Col. Grossman and the retired Colonel that shared this theory with him on most aspects. The only part that I am not sure about, is the idea that people make a choice on whether to be a sheep or a sheepdog. I am not sure if it is decided by nature or nurture, but I don’t believe that I made a conscious decision to be a sheepdog. Maybe I was born with it or maybe it was a result of my upbringing, I’m not sure. I have seen people that thought themselves sheepdogs and even tried to take on the role, that when faced with violence either froze up or shut down shortly after their experience.

One instance in particular comes to mind. Shortly after leaving active duty, I took some private security gigs. One night while walking an apartment complex with a partner five gunshots rang out from an adjoining park followed by the sound of a car horn steadily blaring. I immediately ran to the scene and after seeing no one in the area, I approached the vehicle sure that I would find someone slumped over having been shot to death and coming to rest on the horn. To my surprise, I could not see anyone in the car. Then I saw that the driver was down on the floor, reaching up to the horn to get help. His girlfriend was on the floor on the passenger side. It was only after I had gotten them out of the car (amazingly, neither had been hit by any of the shots) that my partner approached. They told us that a man had demanded their wallets at gunpoint and when they refused (probably not smart), he opened fire. They then pointed in the direction the suspect had run. There was a restroom in the middle of the park which looked like the only place for someone to hide from my view as I entered the park. I can’t begin to describe the outrage I felt at this person attacking these folks! I went to the restroom to try to confront this person and hold him for the sheriff’s department. After I cleared the building, I realized that once again, my partner was not with me. After the sheriff’s deputy took his report and we were left alone, my partner started berating me. In his opinion, we weren’t there to protect the park or it’s occupants, nor should I have cleared the restrooms (both valid points on the surface). He felt that I had put myself in danger that I shouldn’t have. “The cops get paid to get shot at. We don’t get paid enough to do shit like that!” was his reasoning. I remember two thoughts that I had during this argument: #1 Money never entered my mind during the whole time #2 Why was it more important that I go home to my family that night than that deputy? Was his life less important than mine? I was there and I faced the wolf without giving it a thought. My partner was not like me, he couldn’t bring himself to run to the sound of the gunfire. He never came back to work again after that night. I don’t think of him as a coward because of his reaction. He was just a sheep that thought he could be a sheepdog. He was just born or raised different than I. Neither one of us better than the other, just different. I hope he doesn’t look at me the same as he does the wolf. While I was prepared to engage in violence that night, I hope he (and other sheep) can see the difference in my motivation for doing so versus that of the predator that attacked that couple that night.

I hope that all of you will read “On Sheep, Wolves & Sheepdogs”. If you are a sheep, I hope that it helps you to recognize the differences between the wolf and the sheepdog. If you’re a wolf, know that the sheepdogs are out there, watching over the flock and yearning to destroy you. If you’re a fellow sheepdog, understand that to the sheep we resemble the wolf. Try to make them more comfortable and don’t let their fear of you cause you to resent them. What’s important is our love for them, not that they love us back or appreciate us; we live to be righteous because it’s who we are, not for recognition.

When I joined the Marines, my father offered this bit of wisdom to me: “You picked an honorable path and I’m proud of you. Be prepared for a lot of people to take you for granted, to be unappreciated and sometimes hated. Men like us don’t need ‘atta boys’ or a ‘pat on the ass’ to know we are doing an important job, we do it because it needs to be done. If you decide you don’t like it and you need everyone to love you and call you a hero to make you feel better, you can always become a fireman.” (My LEO friends will get that one. For the rest of you, omit the last sentence, lol.)


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