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







A Modern Fable


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.

The analogy has become popular in military and law enforcement circles. Many heard it for the first time in the blockbuster movie, American Sniper. In an early flashback 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 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 read about the Sheepdog in Dave Grossman’s book, On Combat,The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace.[*] Critics from Slate magazine decried the analogy as simplistic, even dangerous, saying it divided the world into a good-versus-evil struggle that perpetuates racial stereotypes. The irony of such criticism is profound given the contemporary prescription of labels for everything from class and politics to identity and sexuality. Unlike such labels, the use of animals to portray man predates biblical times.

The fable is likely the first fictional form in literature. In his introduction to Aesop’s Fables, Isaac Singer wrote that the fable created its own philosophy: the character of a being as its fate. The fable, at its core, was essentially pessimistic: the animals depict the traits and actions of the aggressor, the fool, the tyrant, the opportunist, and so on.

Grossman heard about this story first from a retired colonel and Vietnam veteran who explained it like this. Society functions because of the many decent and capable individuals who go about their work, doing what they are supposed to be doing. These are the Sheep and there is nothing negative intended with this comparison. They are good and decent, often incapable of hurting another human being. Sheep dislike the Sheepdog, people in roles such as the police and the military, because their presence is a constant reminder of the Wolf and the evil acts it commits. The Sheepdog has fangs and is capable of violence and, in this way, resembles the Wolf. Bad actors who inflict violence on the Sheep are the greatest enemy of the Sheepdog; they are Wolves in Dogs’ clothing. A true Sheepdog will never harm the sheep, because it lives to protect the flock.

The polarization of the military during Vietnam and the police in recent years from the society they protect has to do with this resemblance to the Wolf, the capacity for violence and aggression, especially when it is misused. During the terrorist attacks of 9-11 and the Las Vegas shootings, it was clear that certain individuals chose to run into the burning towers and toward the gunfire, when the normal human reaction was to flee. This human trait ennobles the character of the Sheepdog with its instinct to protect and save life, and to engage evil, to face death and dying if necessary. The retired Colonel’s explanation was a retelling, a modern version of Aesop’s characters, sketching the animals to fit the times.

Aesop lived over 2500 years ago, and the Wolf shows up often in his fables. Two include the Sheepdog.[†]The fable’s great purpose was instruction, a moral lesson, often humorous on the surface; its objective was not only the depiction of human motive but the improvement of human conduct. The form’s defining features were brevity, directness and clarity. Here’s my modern version.


The Sheep, the Wolf & the Sheepdog

The Sheep had come down from the mountains long ago. With the Dog to keep the Wolf at bay, the flock settled into the grassy meadows. The Dog heard the Sheep grumbling. “We don’t like the sheepdog. Its bark and presence disturb us.” The Dog asked them about the Wolf.  “What Wolf?” the Sheep replied. “It is your Wolfish teeth and ways that upset the flock. You are no longer welcome.” So, the Dog left. Within a fortnight, the Wolf learned of the Dog’s departure and returned. The Wolf destroyed the unguarded flock at its leisure.


Aesop knew that no change in government or technology would change human nature, from the exploiter and the exploited to the host and the parasite. Grossman explains that animals do not have a choice in what they are. “But you are not a critter. As a human being, you can be whatever you want to be. It is a conscious, moral decision.” Most people read The Tortoise and the Hare as children and laugh at the humor. The lesson is easy enough. The children don’t think they are turtles or rabbits, but they might think about their conduct. The person who identifies with the Sheepdog or calls himself a Sheepdog , hopes to live up to the nobility and selfless conduct the dog personifies in protecting the flock.

What about the Sheep, the reference used for the majority of the good people going about their job every day? Researchers wrote a paper on Sheep in Aesop’s and Phaedrus’s Fables which clarifies misperceptions.

Abstract: Sheep feature in various animal fables. Marino & Merskin suggest that “we” view sheep as “docile, passive, unintelligent, and timid,” but animal fables do not support this view. In Aesop’s and Phaedrus’s fables, sheep are a primary target of injustice; but they are not passive targets. Sheep endure injustice actively and honestly. They are intelligent, aware and outspoken about their own condition.[‡]

In other fables, the Lamb rebuts the Wolf, the Sheep avoids a trap, and the Sheep try to oppose violence with reason. Individual Sheep are intelligent animals who are often too weak to resist violence and traps. The flock differs from the individual because as a group it underestimates the threat of the Wolves; the flock appears naïve. The individual sheep shows a stoic ability to endure and to go about its own life, similar to that described by the old Vietnam veteran. The lesson about the flock cautions against the rule of the mob.

Aesop may associate the group or the flock with gullibility, though more often he pairs the Shepherds with such behavior. In seven fables the Shepherds lose their flocks from impudence and simple-mindedness.[§]

Border Collie Herding Sheep,




Above Tree Line

My decision to join the military in 1987 would have surprised my younger self. I was a scrawny teen with a brother at West Point who didn’t think I should attend. It was easy to answer those who asked why I decided to go, especially as a woman. Because my brother told me not to. Why does a teenager do anything?

The truth is more complex. My family visited my brother, and I saw the cadets and the grounds. The place made an impression and so did the scholarship. After the fall of Saigon, my father bought a liquor store, and my parents managed the bulk of the work. For me, college meant scholarship, a job, loans, or some combination thereof.

My father had made his own way in life and attributed his success to his hardscrabble roots. He lived in the tenements of Charlestown, Massachusetts, just down the street from Bunker Hill, where he studied under the nuns at parochial school St. Francis de Sales, skipped mass on Sundays, and hid the bread bag which held his cheese sandwich at lunch, embarrassed before his peers, who were likely just as poor. As a young man he did odd jobs until his older brother came back from Korea and went to college on the G.I. Bill, convincing my father to join him, the first generation to go to college.

My father said he was not a great student. He was hired as a teaching principal in a small New Hampshire school because of his age and GPA, which looked good since it was on a five-point scale and the hiring staff thought it was on four. They found him articulate and mature, something he attributed to his baldness, early independence, and work ethic. With a bit of luck and a lot of sweat, he would step out of his humble beginnings and discover his passion in Vietnam. He supported my decision to go to West Point and I imagine he was pleased since I would be earning my way.


My mother was far from supportive, resenting my dad for sending both children into the Army. What kind of person goes into the military? And, they might die! As a Vietnamese, she knew about death and my father had helped her family escape. This was in the back of my mind, a childhood in Saigon, studying in French with nuns, chasing geckos on the lawn, finding bullet shells in the dirt, the compound walls the limits of my play.

America had welcomed my mother’s relatives, who had left their land, their homes, their belongings, carrying one bag, wearing the clothes on their backs. Numbered in order of priority since there might be only so many seats, my uncle was first on the list because he was chief of police and the communists would make his reeducation immediate, more likely he would disappear. Family who decided to flee included his wife, a pharmacist, a military pilot, businessmen, elders, children, all would-be-targets in the new regime. My youngest uncle stayed because he was an officer in the South Vietnamese Army, a decision which would prove fatal.

America for me meant fresh milk, not shopping from a catalog, English, and freedom. I didn’t understand my mother’s sadness or why my father left his government job. He swapped his suits for dungarees; he swept the sidewalk outside the liquor store which he bought after he left the foreign service. He told us never to cross Bentz Street where sirens went off regularly at John Hanson public housing. Local thugs knew better than to mess with Kojak, the name they gave my father, because he was bald and had been in ‘Nam. They imagined him a hardened war vet, and he didn’t correct them. He projected his strengths, which included the mystery of his background and his size. He was broad shouldered and fast on his feet. My brother and I took a taxi to school on occasion, because kids had chased him, calling him Chink and wanting to find out what was in his briefcase.


The Wolf lived just outside our door. Break-ins and theft were part of business in the hood. I lived my grade school years above the liquor store, watching my father take the week’s receipts in a bulging bank pouch under one arm, his revolver under the other, peeking out the window, varying the day and hour of his trip to the bank. My dad procured a military dog from Fort Detrick. He was a muscular Weimaraner, responding to commands in German. I was equally terrified and enthralled by him. He was our Sheepdog, guarding the store and the family.

The dog deterred most burglars. The back door window had been punched through, alarms had been set off, the concrete block beneath the store’s bulkhead had been dug into, and one worker got away with thousands of dollars. On my tenth birthday, I was wearing a yellow nightgown, leaning toward my cake. I blew out the candles and a loud crash came from the storefront. My dad leapt past me, his keys jangling against his thigh. Something had broken the window, landed on the overhang, just outside the glass. A flaming bottle, a Molotov cocktail.

My father was amazed that my mother got out of the liquor store alive. She was prone to throwing her shoe at those she caught stealing or misbehaving, as well as expelling them from the store until they showed remorse and changed their ways. My father called the place a diamond mine for the money they made. He expanded the storefront, increased inventory, set up lights, painted and scrubbed the place.

“Even the dingy and the poor will choose a clean, well-lit place over a sty.” My father said this often, perhaps because he knew something of that life. My parents got to know the regulars and joked with everyone. In addition to alcohol, they sold convenience items such as toilet paper by the roll, Swisher Sweet cigars, pickles from the jar, and penny candy. They rolled out kegs on the weekend to college students.

Life seemed a continual state of turmoil on Bentz Street, the police coming and going, a small-scale war in the neighborhood. As I grew older I learned more about the Vietnam War. From what I observed, communities were a lot like nations. The Wolf lived across the street as well as at the helm of rogue governments.


My parents had enough. We moved to a bucolic town with good schools. After a year of commuting, my father sold the liquor store. He bought a laundromat in Charlestown, West Virginia, which I was happy about because we lived far enough away that no one would know me there.

The course of my young life reminds me of hiking in the Adirondacks with my children years later. Climbing the high peaks towards the tree-line, I would break through the pines, black spruce, twisted by wind and snow, often in one direction. Above the trees, it was easier to see the path I’d taken. From my first memories in Saigon and the smell of anise and cardamom from a bowl of pho, to the tears from cigarette smoke on the flight out in 1975, to the taste of fresh milk and freedom, to ghetto sirens and heaps of laundry, to seeing my brother on parade in uniform, the journey I had taken led me to a critical decision point.  My brother’s transformation and growth as a cadet were a model I wanted to emulate. Here was an ideal, a world governed by values: duty, honor, and country. It was a chance to step out on my own, to stand up and be counted, to defend the nation which had given refuge to my mother’s family. I planned to leave town and applied to only one college. West Point.


Kaiser was a formidable protector of my children and family, a Belgian Malinois, a popular military breed that helped find Osama Bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Bagdahdi



It’s Not About the Shoes


Young people ask me, What’s the hardest thing you went through? What’s the best thing? I don’t have a stock answer, though the second is easy enough after a little thought. The best thing is the people. The hardest thing is tough to answer. Was it the sixty seconds I had to say goodbye to my family? A ruck march with M16 rifle and combat load? Fighting to stay awake at the chalkboard from sleep deprivation? I’ve a renewed interest in these questions with my oldest, Cara, now a freshman cadet, reliving the horrors and the highs.

Maybe the difficult part was understanding myself and my fears. I had to manage more than I could handle. To fail. The overload of demands simulated the stress of battle so I would learn how to function under duress. Doing so could mean life or death. Writer and researcher Angela Duckworth studied West Point plebes going through basic training and she called this quality that successful cadets have, grit, a buzz word in education circles. To me grit means more than guts, or brains and brawn, though those are important. Grit means sticking to it, surviving the suck.


I’ve learned to recognize the traits of the Sheepdog in my work with West Point Admissions.I want to find the best candidates because these young people will become leaders, responsible for the lives of America’s sons and daughters.

I advise them, helping with everything from resumes to congressional nominations. The congressional interview can be intimidating and I have been part of selection panels for years. One year a police chief in uniform, another West Point graduate, and I worked together. I had on an oxford shirt and dress trousers, six-feet tall in heels. When the applicants entered the room, we stood behind the table with one chair opposite. Chief welcomed them, and told them to relax, that we’d all been there before, in the hot seat. We checked qualifications, but the focus for the interview was to answer one question. Could this person lead?


Mild mannered and thoughtful, one candidate, call him Steve, wrote about his passion for Latin and Greek, translating works on battles. His studies led him to West Point. At his interview, he introduced himself, looked me in the eye and shook my hand.

After he settled in, I mentioned his fitness test and asked why he wanted to go to West Point. He shifted in his chair. “I failed. But I,” he took a breath. “I need to do better.”

“Why West Point?” he repeated, leaning forward. “Because there, you get what you earn. Look, both of my parents are professors at [an Ivy League school]. It’s a joke. The students, many don’t do the work and the professors can’t do much. They’d always gotten As and the students expect that.” His voice broke. “At West Point, when I get a grade, it will be because I earned it. It means something.”

I commended him on his scholarship and asked about the Latin phrase. Anima sana in corpore sano. His face brightened and he worked out each word. “A healthy soul . . . in a healthy body.”

“A sound mind in a sound body,” I clarified. “It’s the motto of a shoe company, Anima Sana in Corpore Sano. ASICS.”  He looked down and his eyes glistened. He said he would work out and improve his fitness level. We finished and shook hands.

Steve and I took something different away from the interview. It wasn’t about the shoes or the motto; he understood that the country needed an officer to be mentally and physically fit to be an effective leader. And I found his parents’ experience as professors troubling. Upon graduation, cadets are commissioned in the Army. Would it matter to be rated as an expert marksman, if you couldn’t hit the target?


Steve’s desire to earn his way and improve his fitness was heartening. Yet the physical and medical standards to attend a military academy are unique in college admissions and often surprise the applicants. With an all-volunteer force, the public is less connected to its military than it was during the Vietnam era and prior, when eligible men had to grapple with the idea of service. Over forty years since, many have forgotten and the young generations do not know the Army standards.

Army Regulation, AR 40-501 Standards of Medical Fitness, is over a hundred pages long. Chapter 2 [**] outlines the requirements for entrance. The idea is pragmatic, considering not only the welfare of the individual but the readiness or ability of the unit to accomplish the mission, to fight and win the nation’s wars. Candidates are routinely disqualified for allergies, asthma, hearing impairments, and other concerns, often something they had known nothing about. The purpose of the exam is noted in these five bullets.


    1. Purpose. The purpose of the standards contained in this chapter is to ensure that individuals medically qualified are

(1) Free of contagious diseases that would likely endanger the health of other personnel.

(2) Free of medical conditions or physical defects that would require excessive time lost from duty for necessary treatment or hospitalization or would likely result in separation from the Army for medical unfitness. 2 AR 40–501 • 14 December 2007

(3) Medically capable of satisfactorily completing required training.

(4) Medically adaptable to the military environment without the necessity of geographical area limitations.

(5) Medically capable of performing duties without aggravation of existing physical defects or medical conditions.

The college application process has become a game of sorts, with students applying to multiple schools, working out what is possible, often including a reachschool or two. The yield is a measure of the school’s ability to enroll accepted candidates. Competitive institutions enroll fewer than half of admitted candidates, like Amherst with 39% or Georgetown at 48%. The colleges try to bring in the best students, to improve stats, losing them to schools such as Princeton with a yield at 66%.  Just where do the other 34% of admitted Princeton students choose to go? Anywhere they want, I imagine.

The yield at West Point far exceeds other colleges at 98%. What does that mean? Candidates like Steve want to go there and only there. Many have wanted to go since childhood, and apply one, two, three years in a row. For the person who goes through the process from fitness test and congressional nomination through medical qualification and appointment, West Point is the only choice. Many write this in their essays and tell me so in person; they feel a duty to serve, they are called to the profession, to become, as one candidate wrote, a Sheepdog .




What Keeps You Awake at Night


“The principal couldn’t sleep,” Beth told me. “She tossed and turned all night. Called the staff in and overruled them. Said they needed to do this.”

What would keep a high school principal awake? And why would she need to overrule her staff? The answer seems harmless enough: an awards recognition. The committee had denied a request to recognize a student scholarship and appointment to West Point. The parents were distraught. They asked for a separate ceremony in the gym and I explained I could not do that. Without permission, their daughter Maggie would not be recognized.

That year three of four appointments in the district were included in school award programs. They are often noted as Military Scholarships, which include the federal service academies and Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) scholarships. The ROTC representative at one ceremony held up a poster-sized check with $200,000 written on it. I asked if he was ever denied from attending. Yes, about twenty to twenty-five percent of the time.

The head counselor had denied my request on the grounds that the recognition did not focus on high school achievement. Yet Maggie’s class load and grades, teacher evaluations, demonstrated leadership in school, as well as out of it, plus a myriad of other distinctions were the basis for her scholarship.

I asked Beth, who managed the region, about the decision change. She said, “I just kept talking about West Point. What it means to serve. Why they need to recognize this young lady. She wants a copy of your speech ahead of time.” They also wanted me to recognize the Coast Guard Academy appointee.


In the auditorium that day, the principal found me, a smile on her face, maybe a bit of embarrassment. She was blonde with long painted nails and grasped my hands in hers, thanking me for coming on short notice. She pointed to my seat next to hers and introduced the candidates. Maggie’s red hair fell to her back, eyes bright; she was pleased to see me. The Coast Guard candidate hadn’t been notified, which was clear from his attire: shorts, polo and baseball cap.

The name on the chair next to mine belonged to the counselor who had written the refusal and avoided me in the hall on my way in. When seated, he and I exchanged a few words.

After the program started, the counselor whispered, “There are sixty presenters here. Over $108,000 in award and scholarship money.” The program had pages of names, from National Merit Scholars to awards from the local pizzeria, the Garden Club and Soccer Boosters. The academy scholarships were conspicuous in their absence from the program.

I leaned toward the counselor, acknowledging the success. Then I told him the value of Maggie’s scholarship. He adjusted his seat, then said, “There’s the problem.” While looking at the audience, I added that the scholarship value didn’t include the Coast Guard scholarship.

He didn’t answer or maybe I didn’t hear him because the princiapal introduced me. I walked to the podium andtalked about my background, West Point and the mission, and the scholarship Maggie earned, over $300,000.  She came on stage and I presented her certificate on behalf of the President of the United States. The audience stood amid resounding applause. I spoke about the Coast Guard Academy and presented the student his appointment.

Afterwards, I shook hands with the principal, but the counselor had disappeared. When I left the stage, a woman introduced herself and recalled a student from some years ago who went to West Point. She looked me in the eye and thanked me. She emphasized how grateful she was. I stopped for photos with Maggie.


Why was the counselor opposed to the recognition and why was the size of the scholarship the problem?  He was older than I and came of age during the Vietnam War. My guess is that he and the faculty resented the military and any affiliation those, myself, Maggie, or the Coast Guard candidate, may have with the armed forces. He dismissed me in the hall and avoided me on stage till seated, though he informed me of the other awards.

His refusal was a red herring and as irrelevant as the principal came to realize. Here’s why I believe the principal could not sleep.

The head counselor and others on the committee have an attitude similar to many who grew up during war protests and the draft. It is likely the same as those who deny the ROTC representative attendance at awards programs. They don’t like the military. The fable uncovers the roots of this antagonism: many Sheep do not like the Sheepdog . So, why the routine standing ovations when candidates are recognized? Today’s students are part of what has been dubbed by historian Neil Howe as the Homeland Generation.[††] These students grew up in a post 9-11 world, when the terrorist attacks took place on U.S. soil. They respect the first responders who rushed in to help those in need; they respect the service men and women who deployed to fight the terrorists abroad, to take the battle off American soil. Many saw the devastation firsthand. The principal knew deep down, that the committee’s decision was rooted in the bias of a different generation and was wrong.

The audience recognized excellence, character, gravitas. Friends and family knew the candidate had distinguished herself in academics, as a leader in the school and the community. They knew the person standing on stage and grasped the significance of the path she was choosing; a duty which once included all eligible men was now the burden of the few. And Maggie was taking up the fight for all of them. With images of the collapsing twin towers punctuating childhood, many in this generation, born in the shadow of 9-11, cheer for the Sheepdog .





[*]Dave Grossman. On Combat, The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace 3rdEdition. Warrior Science Publications, 2008.


[†]Aesop’s Fables. Translation by George Fyler Townsend.Nelson Doubleday, 1968. Also on

The Wolves and the Sheep.  “Why should there always be this fear and slaughter between us?” said the Wolves to the Sheep. “Those evil-disposed Dogs have much to answer for. They always bark whenever we approach you and attack us before we have done any harm. If you would only dismiss them from your heels, there might soon be treaties of peace and reconciliation between us.” The Sheep, poor silly creatures, were easily beguiled and dismissed the Dogs, whereupon the Wolves destroyed the unguarded flock at their own pleasure.

The Wolves and the Sheepdog s. The Wolves thus addressed the Sheepdog s: “Why should you, who are like us in so many things, not be entirely of one mind with us, and live with us as brothers should? We differ from you in one point only. We live in freedom, but you bow down to and slave for men, who in return for your services flog you with whips and put collars on your necks. They make you also guard their sheep, and while they eat the mutton throw only the bones to you. If you will be persuaded by us, you will give us the sheep, and we will enjoy them in common, till we all are surfeited.” The Dogs listened favorably to these proposals, and, entering the den of the Wolves, they were set upon and torn to pieces.


[‡]Matteo Colombo and Chiara Raucea. Sheep in Aesop’s and Phaedrus’s Fables. Feb 22, 2019.


[**]AR 40-501 Standards of Medical Fitness. 2007-12-14.  Chapter 2 outlines the physical Standards for Enlistment, Appointment, and Induction into the Army. The disqualifying medical conditions are listed for the following.

    • 2–2, page 2 Abdominal organs and gastrointestinal system • 2–3, page 4 Blood and blood-forming tissue diseases • 2–4, page 5 Dental • 2–5, page 5 Ears • 2–6, page 5 Hearing • 2–7, page 5 Endocrine and metabolic disorders • 2–8, page 5 Upper extremities • 2–9, page 6 Lower extremities • 2–10, page 6 Miscellaneous conditions of the extremities • 2–11, page 7 Eyes • 2–12, page 8 Vision • 2–13, page 9 Genitalia • 2–14, page 10 Urinary system • 2–15, page 10 Head • 2–16, page 11 Neck • 2–17, page 11 Heart • 2–18, page 11 Vascular system • 2–19, page 12 Height • 2–20, page 12 Weight • 2–21, page 12 Body build • 2–22, page 12 Lungs, chest wall, pleura, and mediastinum • 2–23, page 12 Mouth • 2–24, page 13 Nose, sinuses, and larynx • 2–25, page 13 Neurological disorders • 2–26, page 13 Learning, psychiatric and behavioral disorders • 2–27, page 14 Skin and cellular tissues • 2–28, page 15 Spine and sacroiliac joints • 2–29, page 16 Systemic diseases • 2–30, page 16 Tumors and malignant diseases • 2–31, page 17 General and miscellaneous conditions and defects • 2–32, page 17


[††]Neil Howe. “Introducing the Homeland Generation (Part 1 of 2)”, October 27, 2014. Author and historian Howe coined the term for the Millennial generation,






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

About mylinhshattan

MyLinh B. Shattan is a writer who has worked in the private sector, taught at college, and served in the U.S. Army. She holds a B.S. in Mathematics from West Point, an M.B.A. from Florida Southern College, and an M.F.A. in Writing from Queens University.