We all know the analogy: There are sheep, and there are wolves, and then there are sheepdogs. It was first popularized by Col. David Grossman, though he was not the first to coin it. Nobody knows who was. But it works, and it makes sense of a world that can often seem senseless.
Nowhere is this more true than in the wake of a natural disaster. When people are left homeless and vulnerable, the wolves are there to steal and destroy, but the sheepdogs are there to protect and rescue. We saw this encapsulated in the now-iconic photo of a SWAT officer carrying a woman carrying her baby through hurricane Harvey’s floodwaters. Another striking photo showed a policeman carrying a little girl with damp curls and a binky in her mouth, thrown into relief against twilight sky.
At National Review, Ben Shapiro reflected, “This is the vision of humanity that carries us through our darkest trials: men as protectors, women as guardians, children as innocents.” He then quoted Grossman’s seminal passage from “On Combat,” describing how the sheepdog channels his aggressive instincts into protecting sheep from wolves. To this, Shapiro added an important observation of his own: Even when violence is not called for, all men should strive to be sheepdogs.
But what do we do when men trained to be sheepdogs, who look and dress like sheepdogs, turn into wolves before our very eyes? What do we say when the sheepdog turns on the sheep?
In Sheepdog’s Clothing
By now, many of us have seen the footage showing the arrest of Salt Lake City nurse Alex Wubbels after she refused to allow Detective Jeff Payne to draw blood from an unconscious truck driver. The driver had been badly burned in a crash, and none of the three standard conditions were met for the police to take his blood: patient consent, arrest warrant, or patient under arrest.
A bodycam caught what happened next on tape: The detective snaps, “We’re done here!” and strong-arms Wubbels, terrified and screaming, out the hospital door. “She’s under arrest,” he tells two officials who try to detain them. “Why?” they ask. “For doing her job?”
Payne retorts, “I will leave with her, and anybody who wants to prevent that, that’s your option.” Pointing to another officer, “He will be taking you in.” Other officers stand by as she is cuffed and forced into the police car, to be detained there for the next 20 minutes.
Payne released her when he learned the medical staff had already taken a blood sample while treating the patient. For his actions, he has been placed on paid leave, and his chief of police has offered an apology. But Wubbels certainly can and should press for more. On NBC, she offered an understated but profound summation of the incident: “They’re officers of the peace. And this was by no means a peaceful process, when it very much could have been.”
Times of War and Peace
Since the publication of “On Combat,” Grossman has held many seminars unpacking its themes for soldiers and first responders. One writer attended such a seminar in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, where 250 cops showed up to be instructed by Grossman on how to prevail in violent encounters. The report he brought back wears its leftist bias on its sleeve, but contains many direct quotes from Grossman worth studying.
Grossman’s opening hook is terse and forceful: “We. Are. At. War.” With this assumption firmly in place, he goes on to conjure up nightmarish, apocalyptic scenarios where the wolves are at the door of every kindergarten, and only the trained warrior sheepdogs can beat them back. Meanwhile, the sheep are cowering and terrified, phobic about violence and utterly helpless to defend themselves. “You see,” he explains, “The sheep are always trying to pull you down. The average citizen of Gotham City watches the news—crime, death, violence! What do they do? Hunker down, cry, lock the door.”
Grossman has not always sounded so contemptuous of plebeian sheep, even writing in “On Combat” that any citizen can choose to be a sheepdog when the need arises. The change of tone appears to correlate with a change of audience.
But Grossman is not insincere, as one can see by perusing the article further. In fact, it is unclear that he understands what his listeners will take away from his words. He is so focused on training up warriors that he forgets an officer’s work is largely made up of encounters with sheep, not wolves. He is so enamored of the idea of the powerful protector that he forgets how power corrupts. He rages against those who cry “Peace! Peace!” when there is no peace, failing to recognize that too many are crying “War! War!” when there is no war.
Wubbels suffered a traumatic experience, but she can be thankful that she walked away uninjured and alive. People like Philando Castile and Justine Damond weren’t so lucky. In those cases, we saw cops whose first instinct was to pull the trigger—the first because he saw a man reach for something that might be a gun, the second because he heard something that might be a threatening noise. But it’s a consistent pattern. If you truly believe you are an officer of war, not an officer of peace, then sooner or later everyone will look like a wolf to you—even a sheep.
For Patriot Dream
Where, then, is the way forward for American society? It is a narrow path, but it falls on us as informed citizens to carve it out. The stories of Wubbels, Castile, Damond and more show us that we cannot afford to back the blue blindly. We know enough to know better. Denial is not the way forward.
But Harvey has shown us that we must also reject the way of cynicism and bitterness. It’s shown us that some cops would rather die than not show up to work when there is work to be done. It’s shown us that there are sheepdogs who will keep their oath and serve the sheep, as they were meant to. As Shapiro so eloquently expressed, it has given back to us a vision bright enough to carry a nation through its darkest hours.
At the closing of the day, ours is neither the foolish dream of the loyalist nor the fever dream of the anarchist. It is the clear-eyed dream of the patriot. So, like the poet, we too may sing:
O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam,
Undimmed by human tears.
America! America! God mend thine every flaw
Confirm thy soul in self-control
Thy liberty in law.