American Sniper’s “wolves, sheep, and sheepdogs” speech has a surprising history with conservatives and the right wing.

The Surprising History of American Sniper’s “Wolves, Sheep, and Sheepdogs” Speech

The Surprising History of American Sniper’s “Wolves, Sheep, and Sheepdogs” Speech

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 21 2015 8:47 AM

The Surprising History of American Sniper’s “Wolves, Sheep, and Sheepdogs” Speech

Bradley Cooper in American Sniper
Wolf, sheep, or sheepdog?

Photo by Keith Bernstein © 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment

This past weekend, American Sniper sold millions of tickets, and introduced millions of Americans to a novel turn of phrase. In an early scene set at the dinner table, Chris Kyle’s father tells him that there are three kinds of people in the world: “wolves, sheep, and sheepdogs.”

The scene is a canny invention by screenwriter Jason Hall, but he didn’t come up with that analogy. The origins of this sheepdog analogy help explain why the film has resonated with audiences. The sheepdog speech comes from Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman’s book On Combat, published in 2004. (It doesn’t appear in Kyle’s best-selling memoir, although the family and friends running Chris Kyle’s Twitter account did tweet about it in December.) Since then it has spread through military and police circles and the right-wing blogosphere. It’s proved particularly durable with gun rights groups. With the release of American Sniper, it has reached its largest audience yet.

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Grossman crafted this analogy in response to 9/11 and the war in Iraq. And it’s not enough to classify the human race into these three simple categories; Grossman—and those who parrot his metaphor—are issuing a call to action to defend yourself against your enemies. In a country where innocent, unarmed, mostly black Americans keep getting killed, it’s a pernicious worldview to hold.

In Grossman’s original essay, now available on his website, he credits an “old war veteran” with first telling him about wolves, sheep, and sheepdogs. He 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.     

In Grossman’s telling, the wolves will do anything they can to hurt sheep. Grossman variously identifies wolves as school shooters, terrorists, criminals, and anyone looking to hurt the innocent. Internationally, think ISIS, al-Qaida, and Boko Haram. Domestically, think gangsters, criminals, and thugs. Grossman makes it clear that, no matter how much society fears its sheepdog protectors, the sheep need their sheepdogs. That means that a sheepdog cannot “take out its teeth.” In gun rights terms, this means that gun owners should never go anywhere without a concealed firearm: “If you are a warrior who is legally authorized to carry a weapon and you step outside without that weapon, then you become a sheep, pretending that the bad man will not come today.”

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And the wolf will come, says Grossman. “If you want to be a sheepdog and walk the warrior’s path,” he writes, “then you must make a conscious and moral decision every day to dedicate, equip and prepare yourself to thrive in that toxic, corrosive moment when the wolf comes knocking at the door.” He emphasizes practicing “when/then” thinking as opposed to “if/when” thinking. He encourages sheepdogs to view their surroundings with fear and paranoia.  

Since the sheepdog analogy was published in On Combat, it’s been referenced or copied wholesale on countless military, special operations, and police blogs. It has been featured at least eight times on the Internet’s most popular military blog, BlackFive.net, as well as other popular milblogs like A Soldier’s Perspective, SOFREP, and This Ain’t Hell. And we’ve found dozens of other blogs that reference or link to Grossman.  

Off the Internet the analogy has spread to T-shirts by at least four different companies, one of which calls itself “Sheepdog Inc.” (Slogan: “Shirts for heroes who hunt down evil.”) It has inspired pastors of churches, and an organization called “Sheepdog Seminars for Churches” that teaches congregations self-defense. It has also been adopted as the name for many gun rights groups. There is even a sheepdog disaster-relief charity—like the Red Cross, but “small, flexible, and reactive” like a Marine Corps Quick Reaction Force. And the sheepdog analogy is all over social media.

While Grossman does have a Ph.D. in psychology, his analogy has zero basis in science. Good and evil aren’t scientific phenomena. While some humans have inclinations toward aggression and violence, it is not a gene that some people have and others do not. Yet Grossman still teaches more than 300 seminars a year on the sheepdog analogy and “conditioning the mind.” Conditioning it for what? We live in the safest times in human history. True “random acts of violence” are incredibly rare in our society; terror events rarer still. But the sheepdog analogy wouldn’t exist if people weren’t afraid

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And people are afraid, so they take action. As a result, this simple analogy is undone by an even simpler (and older) one: the wolf in sheep’s clothing. After all, all humans basically look alike. Faced with this problem, how can you tell a wolf from a sheep?

The easiest way is race.

Chris Kyle, when he went to Iraq, spent zero time distinguishing the sheep from the wolves: Every Iraqi was a wolf. Kyle called Muslims “savages,” and described the unofficial rules of engagement of the battlefield simply: “If you see anyone from about sixteen to sixty-five and they’re male, shoot ’em. Kill every male you see.” That doesn’t sound like someone protecting the sheep (innocent Iraqi males) from the wolves (the insurgents).

Domestically, black Americans are the victims of this analogy. White Americans, in general, view threats through the lens of race. Studies show that many Americans believe black men are the most dangerous group in America. Experiments, using first-person shooter video games, have shown that unarmed black men are more likely to be shot than their white counterparts by police officers. In other words, some “sheepdogs” tend to reflexively identify black people as “wolves.” Is it a coincidence that black men are 21 times more likely to be shot by police? Or that America has seen a rash of unarmed (mostly black) Americans killed by armed civilians in recent years?

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In reality, some sheepdogs act an awful lot like the wolves. Take Jimmy Lewis Fennell, Jr., a police officer who was convicted of committing sexual assault on duty. If he’s not a wolf, then who is? And how does a sheepdog handle that threat?

And while the majority of veterans (sheepdogs through and through) return home to lead normal lives, some do not. (Statistically, veterans with PTSD do have higher rates of violent crime, though the vast majority of veterans do not commit crimes.) Have these sheepdogs turned into wolves, or were they always wolves?

We don’t want to paint police officers and veterans as “whackos” or evil. (One of the co-writers of this post is a veteran.) We want to point out how foolish, and potentially tragic, the distinctions between good “sheepdogs” and evil “wolves” really are.

After leaving his service as a Navy SEAL and publishing his memoir, Chris Kyle started mentoring other veterans with PTSD. As the movie mentions in its conclusion, Chris Kyle was killed by another veteran, a Marine. Are Marines not sheepdogs? Or did Kyle’s killer turn into a wolf? Most importantly, as the analogy goes, why couldn’t Kyle tell the difference?

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.

Ask Michael Brown. Ask Eric Garner.

Ask Chris Kyle.

Michael Cummings left the U.S. Army in 2011 after deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq. His work has been featured by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Foreign Policy.com. With his brother Eric, he runs On Violence, a blog on military and foreign affairs.

Eric Cummings is a writer living in Los Angeles. His work has been featured in Slate, the Los Angeles Times, and other publications. With his brother Michael, he runs On Violence, a blog on military and foreign affairs.