The ‘Sheepdog’ Analogy is Deeply Flawed


Just about everyone in the military is familiar with the sheep, wolves, and sheepdog analogy, as popularized by LTC (Ret) Grossman in his book “On Combat.” We all fit into one of those categories, he says—we need protecting, we are a predator, or we are a protector.

While Grossman’s analogy has a lot to do with the psychology of how an individual deals with trauma or how they are mentally geared toward violence—e.g. the wolf enjoys killing rather than suffering from adverse effects from doing it—I am primarily concerned here with how this paradigm has been applied. Although I find some issues with Grossman’s approach (which will be addressed further down), the intent here is to dig into the common perceptions of these categories—what they have become rather than just what they were intended to describe—as they seem to be perennially accepted in the military, veteran, and law enforcement community.

If you stand up against danger, you are a sheepdog. If you prey on the innocent, you are a wolf. And if you are innocent but require protection from others, you are a sheep. Of course, everyone in this arena thinks of themselves as a sheepdog, so it works rather nicely. But what if it just is not that simple? What if that whole paradigm is harmfully simplistic?

I want you to keep that last term—harmfully simplistic—in mind for a minute. We will come back to that. We are going to step away from the sheepdog in order to draw an analogy.

Life Is Complicated

A huge problem in the current socio-political narrative we all experience in the news, elections, and government action revolves around popular conceptions about social classes, namely the “rich” and the “poor.” Entire political platforms are crafted on the notion that we need to move monetary funds from one group to the other and the cries about this not being done enough or, to a large enough degree, fill our ears and eyes when we turn on the news or social media.

Regardless of one’s stance on the ethics of engaging in such an endeavor, what is important to note here is what is nearly always overlooked in this narrative—the transience of one’s particular standing on these proverbial ladders. The paradigm of “the rich” versus “the poor” too often assumes that everyone in those categories is there permanently and will never move without some sort of artificial stimuli.

But we know from mountains of data that this simply is not true. The wealthiest “1 percent”—as they have popularly been dubbed—are not the same people from one year to the next. Similarly, those at the poverty level of income are not typically there for the duration of their whole lives. Both of these extremes on the scale of income levels see a mobility in their ranks of people who are only there for a short time—some longer than others.

The reason we see this on something like income level is due to the unpredictability of the world combined with human nature. That is a really short and simple way of saying that there are countless variables and limitless factors leading to individual decisions that are completely incalculable.

Life is insanely complicated, so approaching it with the idea of everyone fitting into one out of three categories—e.g. rich, middle class, or poor—is not only problematic but harmfully so. We risk making some rather poor decisions if that is the framework upon which we build our worldview.

Categories Do Not Always Work

By this point, I am sure you can see where I am headed with this. If we know that people’s status in the socio-economic world is transient in nature due to more factors than can possibly be known at any given time, why then would we assume a paradigm wherein everyone in the world fits into one of three categories in relation to threats of violence?

Consider it this way: I have been involved in some type of reality-based martial art (from Muay Thai to JKD, Filipino to Bjj, and tactical 3-Gun) continuously for well over 20 years. Do you know what I have learned most of all in that time? My biggest takeaway has been the knowledge that I know very little and that I cannot assume anything about anyone’s capability with any kind of rational consistency.

That skinny dude who smokes and drinks too much? Turns out he was an all-state wrestler through all of junior high and high school and, despite being out of shape, still shoots a vicious double-leg takedown that will leave you flat on your back.

That overweight kid who is still in high school and looks like he couldn’t run a lap on a track to save his life? As it happens, he is ridiculously calm on the mat and will. Not. Tap. Out. Ever. But that behemoth of a dude who takes steroids, weighs 220 pounds with no body fat, and just went through Marine Corps boot camp? He has the pain tolerance of a 3-year-old and I tapped him out twice in 5 minutes. Go figure.

One may hear these anecdotes and immediately question how they relate to the topic at hand. Why does the inability to predict a person’s ability to fight, based on how they look, have anything to do with the sheepdog analogy being flawed? Because the anecdotes themselves only tell a small portion of the story. The skinny dude is terrified of heights and dangerous situations. The overweight kid panics at the sound of gunfire. The bodybuilder, though terrible at handling pain in a fight, did become a U.S. Marine.

The point is that these characters are all very capable in one arena, but not at all in others. The wrestler and the overweight kid would likely drop a dude who was threatening a woman or child in a public situation, but the idea of being a firefighter or police officer is completely out of the realm of possibility for either of them. So how does one categorize these individuals—as part-time sheepdogs? Sheep that sometimes transform?

Now let us make this even more complex. What happens when someone in a sheepdog role acts as a wolf? What if, say, individuals in positions that are by definition sheepdog roles become wolves that prey on others?

Again we see the transience of status wreaking havoc on our categories. But why does that matter?

Harmfully Simplistic

Remember how I told you to keep that term in mind—harmfully simplistic? This is where we understand the point of all of this, as I am sure that several of you are questioning that very thing right now. Sure, you might say, things are not that simple; we all know this, but over-complicating a basic analogy does not serve anyone.

But it does, because assuming simplistic models as being accurate when they are not is harmful to even the best of us.

Just think about some of the people you have served within the military. Maybe they had a combat job and maybe they even saw combat. Now, fast-forward and imagine them 15 years after getting out. No training, no PT, nothing—how far is that four year-stint going to take them in a mass shooting after being removed from it for over a decade of pizza, beer, and a desk job?

And here we come to the crux of the matter—nine times out of 10 that guy still thinks he’s a sheepdog.

Do not try to tell me you have not seen this yourself. There are guys floating all over the veteran community who have supposedly “been there, done that,” but have not done a lick of actual training in a decade or more. They talk a mean game about when they were “in the sandbox” and yet cannot run more than 50 feet without needing a break, haven’t fired a firearm in years, and forgot all the first-aid knowledge they thought they knew originally (or maybe they sucked at all of these things to begin with?).

I have seen police officers who were afraid of crowds and should never be trusted with a gun. I know of firefighters who could not pass the physical fitness test of their department but found ways of gaming the system to stay on and do the job. And I can just about guarantee that each of them if engaged in a conversation on this topic, would proudly proclaim the title of “sheepdog.”

Overconfidence Can Kill

The field of psychology is rife with problems and one that, despite having a master’s degree in a subset of it (or maybe because of that?), I am most unimpressed with it. But there have been a few notable efforts in this area over the last few decades, one of which deserves attention here.

Psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger studied and developed what would come to be known as the Dunning-Kruger effect—a cognitive bias relating to people’s inability to see their own inability. The crude version is that people are often “too stupid to know how stupid they are.”

So in a world where the sheepdog analogy is continually forwarded—a world of constant talk about fighting, shooting, and saving lives—do you think that people who are not actually sheepdogs … are going to recognize that fact? Do you believe that most people are going to understand that one may be a sheepdog only once in their entire lives and live the rest of it as a sheep? Or do you think that off-the-charts levels of overconfidence and cognitive biases are going to lead people to believe they are something they are most certainly not?

At 44 years old with all my experience and learning, what I know more and more each day is what I don’t know—how unsure I am about a whole lot of things. Could I protect those people over there if a shooter came in the door? Could I fight that guy who looks pretty tough and like he’s about to embark upon a domestic violence jamboree with his waif of a wife?

I do not assume because there are countless variables. I work regularly at being as smart and capable as I can be, but also know the limitations of my own ability and the myriad factors involved in life, especially when things get violent.

Walking around every day telling myself that “I’m a sheepdog” belies everything I know about this crazy thing we call “life.” It is insanely complicated, and throwing everyone into one of three categories ignores that reality.

Grossman’s Work

So here we come to the difference between what I am addressing and what Grossman forwarded, which has more to do with how someone psychologically copes with violence—how they are naturally wired—than with a category they choose for themselves. Although these are not necessarily the same, I posit that they are decidedly linked more closely than some may realize, and that poses a significant problem for his analogy.

Grossman writes:

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.

Usually, when a paradigm is flawed, we can trace it back to an initial step being slightly off. Much like shooting an azimuth, one or two degrees off does not lead one to get lost right away, but if that path is followed long enough then the walker is going to find themselves in trouble. That is the case here, as we are offered a slightly flawed starting point: “no capacity for violence” equals a “healthy productive citizen” who is a “sheep.”

Epoch Times Photo
Shooting an Azimuth. DoD photo by Sgt. 1st Class Brent Powell

I recall hearing a 911 dispatch recording in which an elderly woman was reporting a man attempting to break into her home. The dispatcher told her to find a place to hide and the grandmother said something like, “no need to. I have my shotgun” in the calmest voice imaginable. She then proceeded to tell the dispatcher that, although she did not want to, she was going to have to go ahead and set the phone down so she could shoot this guy because he was coming in and, BAM, she did. Upon picking the phone back up, her voice had not changed in tone, but she reported that she had, in fact, shot and killed the intruder.

Just like that. A grandma who, according to most who knew her, had “no capacity for violence” and was a “healthy productive citizen.”

News flash: most people have a capacity for violence. If the right circumstances are present, then nearly anyone can be pushed to a point of committing a violent act. And herein lies the problem with this whole analogy—it belittles the tremendous levels of complexity involved with these terms.

What does one mean by “capacity” and is there a definitive demarcation line between capacity and non-capacity? Can we demonstrate clearly where one person has zero capacity for violence and another has a full capacity, or are we ranking people on a 1–10 scale? And how would we do that given the myriad variables involved that are incalculable by any known methodology?

Bigger Problems

Making this even more complex is the reality that our notions of concepts like “good” and “evil” are intrinsically linked to how we process traumatic events but are not necessarily constant throughout humanity. This poses a significantly bigger problem for the sheepdog paradigm than most are willing to admit.

Grossman wrote, “If you have a capacity for violence and no empathy for your fellow citizens, then you have defined an aggressive sociopath—a wolf.” But notice a key word there: citizens. What if you have great empathy for citizens and a complete lack of empathy for non­-citizens? Where does vehement nationalist-themed violence fit into this framework?

This is where we would have to dig deeply into the concept of cultural mores versus universal moral truths—do the latter exist? If so, how does it affect the concept of citizenry in this analogy? If not, do we not then just reduce everything to a form of tribalism, whereby the whole sheepdog concept only applies at a local level and somewhat discredits Grossman’s platform?

But we do not need to get that deep to see other flaws. The use of “wolf” as a category implies that all wolves are the same, yet we know from even a cursory study of wolves that this is demonstrably untrue. Within a wolf pack, there are alphas and betas, and the way wolves primarily operate is in a pack—not as singular, autonomous agents.

In other words, labeling an individual who has a capacity for violence and no empathy as a “wolf” ignores the obvious reality of wolves themselves. They work cohesively as a team that, at some animalistic level, depends upon some form of empathy for one another (assuredly in a way we cannot fully grasp; but it still relating to each wolf relating to others in the pack).

So, even apart from the massive problem of universal evil versus cultural mores (which is no small thing in relation to how an individual psych process acts such as taking the life of another human being), we have base-level problems of categories that are attributed to namesakes that do not themselves obey the framework necessary to make the category work in the first place. That, in a nutshell, is where all of this begins; i.e. that is the original azimuth the path starts with.


As I pointed out from the beginning, the main issue I have with this analogy is not necessarily in its inherent limitations (though as I have just shown, those are noteworthy), but rather in its application. We have an entire culture latching onto this paradigm because it makes sense at a surface-level glance and enables one to simplify the entire populace into one of three categories—naturally with themselves finding a coveted spot in a more righteous calling.

This, as I have argued, not only oversimplifies but does so in a harmful fashion by creating overconfidence about things we cannot fully understand. Like categorizing everything in the political world as being “right” or “left,” using the sheep, sheepdog, wolves analogy leads us to misattribute not just someone else’s ability and station in life, but our own, as well.

And that is where it becomes a big problem. If you are simplifying the complex in a manner that does not ultimately make sense, you are in fact setting yourself up for failure.

Do not make assumptions. Do not pretend everyone is in one category and you are in another so that you can feel like a badass. It does not serve the public and it puts you in a position of succumbing to massive cognitive biases that are quite difficult to overcome.

Our roles in life are malleable, and so are those of others. Thinking that you are always one thing and someone else is always another is arrogant and fails to appreciate the beauty in the chaos of this thing we call “life.” Appreciate that and you will have a better starting point than most.


About the author:  In a time of hyper-specialization, Gregory is an accomplished and educated generalist who understands that knowledge from a multitude of disciplines is necessary for true wisdom. A continuous wanderer and seeker of knowledge, he has worn three different colors of the beret for the U.S. Army and worked in everything from metal fabrication, music, and bartending to politics and publishing while on a constant search for life’s meaning.

This article first appeared in The Havok Journal.

The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Source link


I'm TruthUSA, the author behind TruthUSA News Hub located at https://truthusa.us/. With our One Story at a Time," my aim is to provide you with unbiased and comprehensive news coverage. I dive deep into the latest happenings in the US and global events, and bring you objective stories sourced from reputable sources. My goal is to keep you informed and enlightened, ensuring you have access to the truth. Stay tuned to TruthUSA News Hub to discover the reality behind the headlines and gain a well-rounded perspective on the world.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.