The Sheep, the Wolf, & the Sheepdog – LTC Dave Grossman & American Sniper









There are three types of people in this world: the sheep who go about their business, the wolf who feeds on the sheep, and the sheepdog who protects the flock.

Last year I sent friends an essay from Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman who wrote about this analogy, one he heard from a retired Vietnam veteran. Like a parable or fable, it helps us understand reality.  Many Americans are hearing the comparison for the first time in the blockbuster movie, American Sniper.  Although it is not mentioned in Kyle’s autobiographical book, screenwriter Jason Hall wrote it into the script.

I’ve given some thought to this since I left the theater.  What type of person am I?  I wondered whether we have a choice in the matter, or if we are simply born as sheep, to live and die as sheep.  In the movie, it’s clear what type of life Chris Kyle lived.

German shepherd

German Shepherd herding sheep

In an early scene, Kyle’s father lectures him after a bullying incident when he defended his younger brother who was beaten up in the schoolyard.  The father tells his sons about the three types of people in the world and, in no uncertain terms, just what he expects. There are no sheep in his family and heaven help them if they behave like a wolf.  He sets his belt on the table to show that he means business.

I love parables and stories and share many in this letter (see tab above).  This scene surprised me because I knew the origins of the story, though it certainly fit the movie’s narrative. I wondered if the vignette actually occurred.  What did not surprise me is the predictable media response.

Here is an excerpt from Dave Grossman’s essay.

One Vietnam veteran, an old retired colonel, once said this to me:

“Most of the people in our society are sheep. They are kind, gentle, productive creatures who can only hurt one another by accident.” This is true. Remember, the murder rate is six per 100,000 per year, and the aggravated assault rate is four per 1,000 per year. What this means is that the vast majority of Americans are not inclined to hurt one another. Some estimates say that two million Americans are victims of violent crimes every year, a tragic, staggering number, perhaps an all-time record rate of violent crime. But there are almost 300 million Americans, which means that the odds of being a victim of violent crime is considerably less than one in a hundred on any given year. Furthermore, since many violent crimes are committed by repeat offenders, the actual number of violent citizens is considerably less than two million.

Thus there is a paradox, and we must grasp both ends of the situation: We may well be in the most violent times in history, but violence is still remarkably rare. This is because most citizens are kind, decent people who are not capable of hurting each other, except by accident or under extreme provocation. They are sheep.

I mean nothing negative by calling them sheep. To me it is like the pretty, blue robin’s egg. Inside it is soft and gooey but someday it will grow into something wonderful. But the egg cannot survive without its hard blue shell. Police officers, soldiers, and other warriors are like that shell, and someday the civilization they protect will grow into something wonderful.? For now, though, they need warriors to protect them from the predators.

“Then there are the wolves,” the old war veteran said, “and the wolves feed on the sheep without mercy.” Do you believe there are wolves out there who will feed on the flock without mercy? You better believe it. There are evil men in this world and they are capable of evil deeds. The moment you forget that or pretend it is not so, you become a sheep. There is no safety in denial.

“Then there are sheepdogs,” he went on, “and I’m a sheepdog. I live to protect the flock and confront the wolf.”

If you have no capacity for violence then you are a healthy productive citizen, a sheep. If you have a capacity for violence and no empathy for your fellow citizens, then you have defined an aggressive sociopath, a wolf. But what if you have a capacity for violence, and a deep love for your fellow citizens? What do you have then? A sheepdog, a warrior, someone who is walking the hero’s path. Someone who can walk into the heart of darkness, into the universal human phobia, and walk out unscathed.  (On Sheep, Wolves, and Sheepdogs – Grossman)


Like Michael Moore and Howard Dean, the culture writers at Slate are upset by the movie’s success and they find this story especially egregious.  Here Michael Cummings and Eric Cummings conclude with their own sniper fire.

Because the analogy is simplistic, and in its simplicity, dangerous. It divides the world into black and white, into a good-versus-evil struggle that the real world doesn’t match. We aren’t divided into sheep, sheepdogs, and wolves. We are all humans. (Slate’s “Surprising History of Sheepdog Speech”)

Masters of the obvious: of course we are not animals.

The Cummings brothers need to do their research, because Grossman has.  Grossman’s credentials are too numerous to list, but here a few.  Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman served for twenty-four years as soldier, infantryman, and army Ranger.  He was a psychology professor at West Point  and author of  On Killing, the Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, a book on the United States Marine Corps Commandant’s Required Reading List and a book which has become required reading at West Point and other military schools.

I graduated from West Point before Grossman wrote this book, but leadership, military science, and the philosophy of war were and are required study.  Interestingly, Grossman’s research is the first ever conducted on the act of killing.  If Cummings read only the essay, he would have understood Grossman’s conclusion whether he agreed or not.

Here is the point I like to emphasize, especially to the thousands of police officers and soldiers I speak to each year. In nature the sheep, real sheep, are born as sheep. Sheepdogs are born that way, and so are wolves. They didn’t have a choice. But you are not a critter. As a human being, you can be whatever you want to be. It is a conscious, moral decision. (Grossman on Sheep)

Human beings are infinitely complex creatures and Grossman explains this to a greater extent not only in this essay, but in his book.

Parables and stories are meaningful tools for us to understand and navigate our way in this crazy world. The beautiful thing about this story, is its ability to model society and  encourage us to contemplate our role in it.

Here’s what I learned about the sheepdog analogy. Each of us, every one, makes his or her own decisions on just what kind of person she chooses to be.

** I recommend reading the essay in its entirety.  It’s worth your time(Link to Grossman’s On Sheep, Wolves, and Sheepdogs)

On Killing

On many military reading lists, Grossman’s book On Killing

Jan 30, 2015


  1. onlein

    There are also shepherds, who guard and if need be lay down their lives for the sheep. The most famous and storied: Jesus. But also Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Corazon Aquino, Lech Walesa and many others who protest injustice courageously and non-violently. We need sheepdogs but we also need this fourth kind of person. Otherwise we are hopelessly locked into violence, maybe not even considering a nonviolent way.

    • mylinhshattan

      You make a good point. It’s easy to understand a paradigm or idea, but you recognized that it is just one way to perceive the world. A good shepherd works with the sheepdog and trains him. And non-violence and diplomacy are admirable skills, though there’s no denying the wolf exists, as well as evil acts committed by humans. The shepherd can’t negotiate with a wolf, though he should do so with humans. And there are some humans with whom he can’t negotiate. Thank you for reading the TreeHouseLetter and sharing your insight.

    • a sheepdog

      Please read John 18:1-11… Jesus and His disciples are in the garden and a cohort of Roman soldiers come looking for Him with the traitor, Judas. Jesus walks up to the COHORT…possibly as many as 600 armed, ready for battle, seasoned, elite killers, and Christ my Lord walks to them, He never waits to engage in battle with evil, and He begins the conversation… “Who are you looking for?” They respond, “Jesus the Nazarene.”
      Christ says “I am He.” Then the Bible says something curious, all these powerful warriors drew back and fell to the ground! As they gather themselves and stand back up Christ again asks, “Who are you looking for?”
      The answer is “The Nazarene.” He again says “I am He. See these with me… LEAVE THEM ALONE!”
      What is your conclusion of this action? Shepard, yes, or Sheepdog… I again say yes and with the powerful words of his mouth He defeated His enemy. We use the weapons we are trained with. Truth is Jesus came to die for the sheep. But in the act of living He said to the whole Roman cohort your not taking me I will go willing to the death I must endure to save the sheep and in dieing I am doing the will of my Father. And by the way… don’t hurt the ones I am with. The Romans left the disciples alone!

      I will put enmity between you (satan) and the woman, between your (satan) seed and her seed and He (Christ) will crush your head and you (satan) will bruise His heel! Gen 3:15
      Violent action against a violent enemy.

      I turned to see the voice behind me and when I had turned I saw one like the son of man standing in the midst of the candlesticks. His head and hair were like white wool, like snow and his eyes were like flaming fire…. and out of his mouth came a sharp two edge sword… don;t sound like a sheep to me! Rev 1:14,16

      Its just like the sheep to not see the war that is brought to earth by the evil and wicked. Funny how sheep miss the steel side of a velvet God.

      P.S. This ain’t about wool or meat or animals it is about salvation of the sheep by the power and love of the Shepherding Sheepdog! He who has ears to hear let him hear.

      God Bless

      • Ace

        This is very true

    • Plebs Paglia

      You are a sheepdog Jesus was a sheepdog
      Do not be guilted or deceived by wolves

    • Katy


    • BuddyLama

      The sheep will spend it’s entire life fearing the wolf (and the sheepdog) only to be fleeced, butchered and eaten by the shepherd.

  2. oruacat2

    Both the sheepdog and the shepherd have a less-than-noble purpose for protecting that flock. The shepherd does so to profit from the meat or the wool – the sheepdog is the means by which the shepherd does so. We might as well simplify this to “don’t be the exploited, be the exploiter”, which, while wise, isn’t quite the selfless sacrifice you want it to be.

    • mylinhshattan

      A bird is no more or less noble because it rises early to eat the worm; neither is the worm exploited because it is eaten by the bird. Both actions are part of their nature as animals. The shepherd, however, may lead a noble life because he possesses superior intelligence and reason; if he tends to his herd, cares for his sheepdog, and conducts his business well and righteously, he may provide not only for himself but for his family, for the spinner, the weaver, the hungry, and the general improvement of society.

      This parable is about the sheep, the sheepdog, and the wolf. And there is no doubt about the wolf, because it exists surely as evil exists in the world. And it is in the sheepdog’s nature to protect the herd.

    • W.

      From your comment oruacat2, you competely missed the point of the entire lecture. There are those, usually police, military or first responders (current, former or retired) for whom no explanation is required. They understand perfectly what is being spoken about. For many of the rest, no amount of explanation will ever leave them understanding.

      I might also add that being an exploiter is not wise. There is an old adage, which states, “that which goes around, comes around.” You may not believe in it, but like electricity, belief is not required. It exists, whether or not you choose to believe.

  3. Jeff

    To oruacat2 and mylinhshatten:

    With regards to the dog, your words are weak and unknowing, less you have been there, which neither of you have. Obviously you are sheep, protected by the dog all your life and certainly not competent to judge. Too bad, for both the wolf and the Sheep Dog breath the air in a way you will never understand.

    • mylinhshattan

      Thanks for your response Jeff. I would argue that words are not ‘strong or weak’ based on one’s experiences. An idea is right or wrong based on its own logic and merits, not on the biography of the person who wrote it. Taking your logic to an extreme, could only someone who has been a President debate the rightness of Presidential decisions? Of course not. That being said, these words are from LTC Grossman, who has, as you wrote, ‘been there.’

      If you read my bio (About Me on toolbar), I have dabbled in the sheepdog trade some, though now am mostly a sheep, and grateful for those dogs still on watch.

    • oruacat2

      US Army 1985-87, when we served to serve and not for the sheepdog fetish.

      But please, continue.

      • mylinhshattan

        I don’t believe anyone serves because of the sheepdog parable. Each generation has its challenges and each individual chooses to serve for his or her own reasons. Our country relies on this all volunteer force today. Thank you for your service.

        • W.

          mylinhshattan, you are quite right, no one serves because of the sheepdog parable. The sheepdog parable simply serves to highlight our ability to make choices and what some of those choices may mean. If you read the entire lecture, you will note that LCol Grossman states that very, very few operate at the ends of the sheep to wolf spectrum. Most people fall somewhere between those two ends and are capable of making choices, which will alter where they sit on that scale.

          Likewise, there are very few, who can go into battle and come out on the other side unscathed by the violence. This is why PTSD exists.

  4. JGU

    Amongst other things I’m a police officer. The question when speaking with other police officers you’ve not met before that always comes up at some point is “So, why did you join up?”. The answer that comes back over 90% of the time is “Because I wanted to help people”. This pretty much concurs with the parable above.

    • mylinhshattan

      Thank you for the decision to become a police officer and ‘help people’, especially with negative media coverage. A large part of America is grateful for you and understood on a national level just how important the role was on 9-11. You go into battle every day whereas the soldier trains to be ready for battle when he/she deploys. The same question comes up among servicemen and women and the answer, like your experience, is “I want to serve our country, to protect its values, to be part of something bigger”. Thank you for visiting the

  5. Hotrod.duane

    As someone pointed out it the previous responses, analogies are never exacting as they are merely an illustration to make a point, not give an exact diagnosis. Something that was not pointed out in the analogy is the fact that sheep are not always defenseless. A dominant ram sheep can be a fearsome thing. A friend of mine had a farm at one time, on which he raised both sheep and cattle. when he was in the field tending his animals, he carried a length of 2X4 board which he used to protect himself from the ram. The ram would attack anything or anyone near the flock of sheep. It knocked the farmer down as well as others who assisted him, and also habitually knocked down the bull that was with the cattle. A possible analogy would be a sheep that runs toward a threat with whatever weapon he has available. Does that make him a sheepdog? Probably not, as the sheepdog in employed to protect by training and disposition. There are those in society who analogically might be rams.

  6. tanner

    so true

  7. Esther Martinez

    There is sheep that go about their business The wolf who feeds on the sheep and of course the sheepdog who protects the sheep.The world seems to be upside down at times, but that’s the way it is.

  8. Mohanjit dhaliwal

    If v see from lense of civilization this s perfect story. But if v see it from holistic lense I means beyond civilization. There’s one character more the shepherd. Both shepherd and wolf need sheeps to survive. Whereas wolf s holistic grownup type. So he didn’t believe in making slaves. Whereas shepherd who’s less capable when it comes to competing with wolf’s uses sheepdogs as slaves. He’s cleaver. Shepherd knows how to fool dogs. How to control them. Dogs r foolish guys . They didn’t understand d whole pictures just like sheeps. But even more foolish then sheeps. They have forgotten the art of hunting n are totally dependent on shepherd for there survival. So in my view . It’s wolf’s who r much balanced. Holistic grownup. Living sustainably as per the original design of nature.

About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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