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On Sheep, Wolves, and Sheep Dogs by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman

On Sheep, Wolves, and Sheep Dogs by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman

From: On Combat, The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace

Since starting I’ve become a lot more involved in the military, law enforcement, and tactical community, through that exposure I’ve come to have a better understanding of their terms and philosophies. One such term that caught my curiosity was “sheepdog”. It’s a label applied to themselves as those who are the protectors of the defenseless “sheep” (the general public).

For some time now I’ve raised an eyebrow toward the concept of “sheepdogs” and “sheep” as I always felt it was an exclusionary term only for the fraternity of military and law enforcement people. Since I’m neither, I felt slighted by the term, as if I need the “sheepdog” to protect my “defenseless self”, even when I don’t feel that way at all and many times felt that I was a “sheepdog” myself. A little later I’ll make a lame attempt at showing how I see this in me.

Anyway, that was my perception of “sheepdogs” and “sheep” until I read the book excerpt linked above.

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.

That passage struck me a bit. Having been in martial arts for roughly 18 years, earning black belt levels in two arts, taking first steps to a CCW I feel I have some capacity for violence but I also care for my fellow citizens. I am not a sheep, and I’m definitely not a wolf, maybe in this view I am a “sheepdog” after all.

Reading further I came across this next excerpt, one that truly hit home:

Understand that there is nothing morally superior about being a sheepdog; it is just what you choose to be. Also understand that a sheepdog is a funny critter: He is always sniffing around out on the perimeter, checking the breeze, barking at things that go bump in the night, and yearning for a righteous battle. That is, the young sheepdogs yearn for a righteous battle. The old sheepdogs are a little older and wiser, but they move to the sound of the guns when needed, right along with the young ones.

Here is how the sheep and the sheepdog think differently. The sheep pretend the wolf will never come, but the sheepdog lives for that day. After the attacks on September 11, 2001, most of the sheep, that is, most citizens in America said, “Thank God I wasn’t on one of those planes.” The sheepdogs, the warriors, said, “Dear God, I wish I could have been on one of those planes. Maybe I could have made a difference.” When you are truly transformed into a warrior and have truly invested yourself into warriorhood, you want to be there. You want to be able to make a difference.

That sounds a bit like me. Just reading that increases my heart rate. Often times when out at a cafe or restaurant, with a chuckle from my wife, I’ll want to sit in the seat facing the door, just in case. I don’t want it, but I’m ready and willing for when it happens. A warrior is someone who wants to do something about it and will not back down from adversity. I think that sometimes those who do not possess this sheepdog-ness think the sheepdogs are silly or paranoid or reckless.

And that brings me to the example from my past.

Many years ago, back when I was in my early twenties, I was hanging out with a couple friends at a local bar. Now, this isn’t just a small corner bar, it’s a large multi-floor building that has lots of bars, clubs and restaurants all available by open staircases and elevators. On Friday and Saturday nights it was quite the hoppin’ place, probably still is, with lots of people having a good time. But then, sometimes you’d get guys who were a little too drunk and a scuffle would erupt. That’s what happened this particular night.

My buddies and I were standing around talking when suddenly some woman ran out of the elevator yelling “He’s beating my boyfriend! He’s beating my boyfriend! Someone help! Oh my God he’s beating him!” and, as my friends stepped away I instead ran into the elevator without even thinking. When I got in there I found two guys grappling with each other and fighting. Not even realizing they both had a good few inches on me and plenty more muscle I stepped between them and pushed them apart. The guy to my right I pushed up against the wall with a hard thud as the other ran out. I immediately turned to the one I had pinned, pointed at his face, and yelled “Calm down!” It was funny because he quickly raised his hands up and said “Ok ok ok” with this really weird look on his face.

I don’t remember how it all ended but I think I sort of shook my head, as if in disgust, and stormed out of the elevator as the bouncers where rushing in. My buddies were beside themselves, “Why did you do that? You don’t know those guys. You could have been beat up or something!” and I kept saying back to them “Where were you? I figured you were behind me. You didn’t just stand here did you?”

In my eyes, that’s a sheepdog moment. It may not be banding together to overcome terrorists who have control of your plane, or protecting others in a coffee shop when an armed robber crashes into the place. But hey, I don’t live on the set of “24”. But, it’s running into danger rather than running away from it. And, to me, that’s a sheepdog, a warrior, and something I think we can all strive to become.