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On V in Other Places: Slate's "The Surprising History of American Sniper’s “Wolves, Sheep, and Sheepdogs” Speech”

Many readers and Twitter followers have asked us, “When are you writing about American Sniper?”

Looking at our work on Lone Survivor, it makes sense. Chris Kyle was as conservative--if not more so--than Marcus Lutrell and filled his book with conservative and anti-ROE ideology. American Sniper, both the book and the movie, are huge hits. And, as multiple media outlets have noticed, Chris Kyle had a tendency to make things up, including shooting looters after Hurricane Katrina, killing two men at a gas station, and punching Jesse Ventura in the face. (This last one cost his family’s estate after he lost a defamation court case.)

Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, we didn’t have time to debunk the facts behind the book. We did, though, have barely enough time last week to write up a piece for Slate, titled, “The Surprising History of American Sniper’s “Wolves, Sheep, and Sheepdogs” Speech”. It also allowed us to finally debunk the sheep, sheepdogs and wolves analogy that we’ve hated for years. (This satisfied another request from our readers, who requested that we debunk this pop philosophy.) Since the American Sniper film uses this analogy, it allowed us to discuss both topics in place.

So, head over to Slate and check it out. Expect more on sheep, sheepdogs and wolves in the next few weeks.

eleven comments

A number of people have pointed out that Grossman didn’t invent the analogy, which we wrote in the post.

That said, it was virtually unknown before Grossman started popularizing it. As in, no one was using it.

I have read Grossman and remember this analogy. I think that SLA Marshall may have also written in some of his dispatches that allude to this analogy but Marshall used the straight forward ‘killers’. This may also come from further research which depending on who you read or follow that many soldiers since the beginning of massed fire would continue to load and not fire or close their eyes when firing. Other soldiers, the ‘killers’ would aim, fire, hit and repeat in a much efficiency as could be maintained.

I personally believe that the analogy can be used but only when explaining the ‘killer’ concept and justifying those actions in a simplified form. In my own personal experience in combat arms from 1998-2010 that there were certain individuals I wanted to be with when a something went down, but I once in command watched those very same individuals when outside the battle space.

In viewing race using this analogy that belongs to each individual, I don’t see the wolf, the sheepdog or the sheep just individuals; until they prove otherwise. I have many times given the benefit of the doubt overseas and the majority of the time those individuals are of no worry and the few times that I was proven wrong while horrible did not negatively the greater good that needed to be accomplished for the mission.

Some years back, I tried to track down who coined the “a pack, not a herd” phrasing that was all over the Web for awhile. This strikes me as along those lines: sheep are herd animals; wolves hunt in a pack.

The difference is kinda like what ‘sheep, wolves and sheepdogs’ is strying to say. I used to know a priest (PT Barnum’s great grandson, no less) who liked to point out that the Biblical audience was very familiar with sheep, so they knew that the “the Lord is my shepherd” and all the other references to the faithful as a flock was NOT a compliment to humans: sheep aren’t smart critters.

What denotes pack hunting is teamwork — each individual predator works independently yet with the group as a whole. Where a herd will abandon an individual so that the majority survives, a pack will single out an individual and let the herd go.

Keegan makes a different point about shepherds that applies here — he argues that for organized violence, the original trio of social structure had a rock/paper/scissors quality: hunting and gathering nomads were hard to catch. Farmers were easy to catch, but would have big families and thus, big armies: so they invented decisive battles, which they’d usually win against nomads (who didn’t like to fight them). But pastoral peoples — the Hyksos, later the Huns and Mongols who had lots of land with large herds and flocks — used the herding skills they learned as shepherds to lethal effect against even the bigger armies farming societies could put into the field for battles: controlling and compacting units, separating and isolating troublemakers, etc.

When an army of Huns was too small to conquer, they’d just raid. But get one big enough — you had the fall of Rome: a society that defined itself as a litter of wolves.

The analogy is clever, but not thoughtful.

On a lighter note, about snipers and the sniper movie:

Well done. It’s about time this stupid analogy got dumped on.

You know that this virtually identical speech was in “Training Day”, given by Denzel Washington corrupt LAPD detective, right?

Your “debucking” of the analogy is very disingenuous. You even quote the final sentence of a paragraph that clearly answers your question “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?” and race has nothing to do with it. You may not like the mindset that Lt. Col Grossman teaches specifically as prevention for PTSD, but your Slate article is purposefully lacking a full presentation of what he teaches. Hopefully your article will inspire others to go and see what is taught for themselves.
By the way, wolves in either sheep or sheepdog clothing, once identified, are dealt with by sheepdogs according to what they are, evil. http://killology.com/sheep_dog.htm

Perhaps I’m too literal, but I don’t care for the analogy because it doesn’t make sense to me. In nature, wolves don’t kill sheep because they are bad or evil and sheep are innocent. They kill because sheep are their food. Everything has to eat.

Regardless, the article was interesting.

“By the way, wolves in either sheep or sheepdog clothing, once identified, are dealt with by sheepdogs according to what they are”

Nope. Civilized countries, legal system, courts, jails, diplomacy and stuff.

Troubles are faced with organizational responses, and our organisations are largely composed of people who nobody would call “sheepdogs”. 300 lbs heavy or 55 y.o. cops who can’t run 100 yards, for example.

The whole “sheepdog” thing is just like the “warrior” thing a delusion of people who don’t want to cope with the fact of life that individuals achieve little and organisations/teams achieve almost everything in modern times. Some people may feel better deluding themselves into thinking that they’re superior because they’re more militant than others, but there’s no additional meaning to being more militant.
It reminds of 15 y.o. ghetto boys posing with a gun.

I might be the last person who should be talking about this (live in a NATO country with no army at all!) but I have always been interested in military history/intelligence studies and this whole “sheep,wolf,sheepdog” doesn’t make sense to me…and I am hoping that someone will correct me when I am wrong.

If you say that your enemy, ‘wolves’, are easily singled out as a predator and that the ‘sheepdogs’ will protect the weak, what is the rationality behind abuse of power ? We have coup d’etat – ‘sheepdogs’ that got tired of being good and saw that it was better to be ‘wolves’ ? We also have corruption, sometimes the ‘sheep’ are worse than the ‘wolves’, and have more damage to inflict on the rest of the heard. If you live your life in thinking that people are either GOOD or EVIL, then you are not going to be around for long. Simple ideas are easy for simple minds to understand and if we try to quantify and explain, those various human emotions that are involved in war, we are trying to make sense of somthing that has always ment to be senseless.

I have a co-worker that survived the war in Bosnia. He is a Muslim and from what he has told me, it is amazing that he survived at all. And he has said, that if war ever reaches our country (very very unlikely, but still he worries), he would rather kill his wife, his two girls and his young son and then himself, rather than having to live through something like what happend in Bosnia, ever again. But by some people’s definitions… he is a ‘wolf’ and deserves to be shot. And I am a ‘sheep’ and supposed to be fine with that…