The 2008 book On Combat, The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace by David Grossman has an interesting passage about sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. In its third edition, the book, and this passage in particular, still resonates with today’s law enforcement officers and describes how their communities understand and respond to them.
To start with, let’s take a closer look at the roles of each of the three characters described in the passage—sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. Then, we’ll consider how the sheep, wolves, and sheepdog analogy relate to how law enforcement officers feel called to serve and protect their communities, no matter the cost.
In this context, the sheep are the everyday Americans who go about their daily businesses without thinking or worrying about violence. Grossman explains, “most citizens are kind, decent people who are not capable of hurting each other, except by accident or under extreme provocation. They are sheep.”
People may instantly be offended at being considered a “sheep,” as the term has become synonymous with someone who follows others blindly. This is not the intent. Grossman explains that calling these people sheep is not an insult. Instead, “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.”
That “soft and gooey” inside that represents the sheep needs protection. For the robin’s egg, that protection comes in the form of a hard, blue shell. For the people represented by this analogy, the formidable blue shell takes the form of protectors such as soldiers and police officers. These frontline heroes protect the beautiful interior, the sheep, who are incapable of hurting others except in extraordinary circumstances and who do not recognize that there are dangerous external forces out there who wish them harm.
Eventually, the sheep will learn to recognize the dangers that lurk outside. That knowledge will, hopefully, allow them to grow into something capable of protecting themselves. Until then, they rely on an external hard shell for protection against unknown predators.
The wolves in this analogy are the outside forces that enact violence against the sheep. They prey on the sheep without concern or mercy. These wolves represent evil people among us who will harm others without blinking. They see sheep as weak and will prey on them mercilessly unless they are stopped.
The wolves are full of aggression and violent tendencies. In our terminology, we may label wolves as “sociopaths.” They have no empathy and do not care about the consequences of their violent actions upon their fellow humans. Although they often lurk in the shadows, the wolves are always on the radar of our final character, the sheepdog.
The final character in this analogy is the sheepdog. The sheepdogs protect the flock of sheep from the wolves by combining elements from both the sheep and the wolf. They are empathetic toward others, yet they understand violence and aggression. Most importantly, they know how to use their aggression to protect others.
By now, it should be evident that the sheepdogs represent law enforcement, members of the military, and other warriors. Grossman defines a sheepdog as “Someone who can walk into the heart of darkness, into the universal human phobia, and walk out unscathed.”
Other words come to mind when we consider that definition. Hero probably stands at the forefront. A hero is someone who understands that they are walking into a dangerous situation and proceeds anyway. They do so out of love and empathy for the people around them. They recognize that there is good in the world as well as evil, and they wake up every day ready to do whatever it takes to defeat evil forces and let the good guys win.
Understanding Aggression as a Gift
We often think of aggression as a negative trait. In the example of the wolf, aggression is what brings down the sheep who are unaware that such a thing exists. However, as members of law enforcement know, aggression when well-placed is not a curse but a blessing.
Grossman explains that “warriors have been given the gift of aggression.” What separates warriors from wolves is how they use that aggression.
The challenge with sheepdogs’ use of aggression is that sheep often have difficulty distinguishing the sheepdog from the wolf. As Grossman explains, while many sheep understand that there are evils in the world, they prefer to ignore them than to do anything about them.
An example is safety in schools. Even though sheep recognize that the schools their children attend are in danger of a wolf coming in, they do not want to place sheepdogs inside schools, especially armed sheepdogs. They would prefer to ignore the whole thing and hope for the best.
The reason isn’t that the sheep don’t like the sheepdog. It’s that the sheepdog is a constant reminder that the wolf exists. Placing armed police officers inside schools reminds teachers, administrators, and students that there is always a risk of a wolf coming in and destroying the peace that lives inside that school.
Sheep often do not recognize a sheepdog until it is too late, and the wolf has broken through the door. At that point, all the sheep will try to hide behind one sheepdog.
Grossman uses the example of the Columbine tragedy, the first massive school shooting that destroyed a community and forever shattered the sheep’s illusion that schools are impenetrable to wolves. On that day, Grossman explains, SWAT teams and armed officers had to peel students off of them so they could perform their duties. Once the students (the sheep) recognized the sheepdog (police officers) as their protectors, they did not want to be away from them.
Living as a Sheepdog
Those who are called to serve in law enforcement are sheepdogs, as are other warriors, including members of our armed forces. These brave men and women are the protectors of their communities and their country. They don’t get to enjoy the luxury of burying their heads in the sand and hoping things will get better. As Grossman puts it, “hope is not a strategy.”
To live as a sheepdog means making a deliberate choice every day to protect those around you. It is not a decision for the faint of heart, and it is not something that you can quickly put to the side when it becomes inconvenient. Anyone who serves in law enforcement or loves someone who does understands this. A sheepdog is always prepared, even when spending time off duty.
The words that Grossman wrote over a decade ago still resonate in today’s heightened climate. Now, it is more important than ever for those who choose to be sheepdog to protect their families, communities, and country from the wolves pounding at the door. That means using aggression wisely, in a way that destroys the wolves while protecting the sheep who would prefer to ignore the protection that sheepdogs offer them.
This is no time to let our guards down and let the wolves win. By working together to combat the wolves and save our sheep, we can help make our communities, neighborhoods, and country a safer place for everyone to live. It is an honor to live and serve as a sheepdog, protecting those who do not even recognize that they need protection. To voluntarily walk into darkness on a daily basis, knowing the dangers that lurk inside and ready to fight the wolves within, is what separates sheepdogs from the rest of the herd.