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? Then you are 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.
LTC Dave Grossman, US Army (Ret.), in the essay “Sheep, Wolves, and Sheepdogs,” from the book On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace (2004).
In any discussion of everyday carry, of being prepared for contingencies (actual contingencies, not the doomsday fantasies of survivalists), and law enforcement, David Grossman casts a long shadow. Grossman, a retired US Army Ranger, professor at the United States Military Academy (West Point), and psychologist, first coined this analogy in his 2004 book On Combat. (As an aside, On Combat and its predecessor, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society are brilliant books, and worth reading.) This article talks about how Grossman came up with his theory of what I will call the sheepdog mindset.
Grossman’s work in On Killing and On Combat came as a reaction to the work of Brigadier General S.L.A. “Slam” Marshall, who claimed to have studied the ratio of fire of combat soldiers in a work entitled Men Against Fire (Marshall’s truthfulness in this study and others has been questioned by many historians and combat veterans, including journalist and retired Colonel David Hackworth, who said Marshall “never let the truth get in the way of a good story”). Marshall asserted that 75% of combat soldiers failed to shoot at the enemy while taking fire.
Later historians debunked Marshall’s claim (PDF), arguing that he never did the underlying research he claimed to have done. Grossman did not address the allegation but instead looked at what was the sort of mental preparation required to get a soldier, Marine, law enforcement officer, or citizen to defend the lives of others in a crisis.
Grossman’s work has been remarkably influential. The film American Sniper references Grossman’s sheepdog essay, as does the popular blog The Art of Manliness. In perhaps a sea change of popular opinion since the police shootings in Ferguson and elsewhere, Grossman’s work has come under fire and been impliedly accused of supporting racism.
Regardless of the logic of attacking Grossman for actions he had no control over, his essay in On Combat represented a change in how many first responders and civilians thought. Grossman’s essay about sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs started a discussion about tactical equipment, about what it meant to get ready for the day, and the danger of complacency (which Grossman describes as denial).
Denial kills you twice. It kills you once, at your moment of truth when you are not physically prepared: You didn’t bring your gun; you didn’t train. Your only defense was wishful thinking. Hope is not a strategy. Denial kills you a second time because even if you do physically survive, you are psychologically shattered by fear, helplessness, horror and shame at your moment of truth.
Grossman, Sheep, Wolves, and Sheepdogs
Too often people engage in “all or nothing” thinking about public figures and argue that, because someone’s legacy is tied up in bad actors or bad actions, then all of that person’s efforts are invalid. Grossman opened the door to the discussion of what does it mean to be ready for an emergency. For those with the training, either as first responders, service members, trained and motivated civilians, or veterans, Grossman was creating a call to action to be ready to do good, in both mindset and equipment.