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American Sniper and the Trope of the Sheepdog

The invasion of Iraq resulted in hundreds of thousands—perhaps even a million—people losing their lives. How can one attempt to justify so much killing?

Enter Clint Eastwood’s new film American Sniper.

Early in the movie, Chris Kyle’s father breaks life down for his infant son (who will grow to be the titular sniper):

There are three types of people in this world: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. Now, some people prefer to believe that evil doesn’t exist in the world…those are the sheep. And then you got predators who use violence to prey on the weak. They’re the wolves. And then there are those who have been blessed with the gift of aggression, and the overpowering need to protect the flock. These men are the rare breed that live to confront the wolf. They are the sheepdogs.

This “wolves-sheep-sheepdogs” triad—the metaphor by which the film justifies Kyle’s bloody career—does not appear in Kyle’s autobiography. Rather, it comes from the work of military psychologist Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, best known for his 1995 text On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society.

In that book, Grossman suggests that, historically, most soldiers have not taken any human lives. In the heat of battle, he says, they tend to revert to an animal instinct that leads them to avoid deadly encounters with other members of their own species. In the natural world, competing males either posture to scare off rivals, or make a gesture of submission. During the Second World War, Grossman argues, most soldiers in close combat did the same: they fired their weapons harmlessly in the air or didn’t fire them at all. (The evidence he cites for this remarkable claim—primarily, SLA Marshall’s classic Men Against Fire—has been widely contested, but that’s another story.)

Grossman’s book On Killing was hailed by some progressives as a defense of humanity against the more common libel—that, as a species, we can be easily encouraged to gleefully slaughter each other, given the right circumstances. But Grossman’s fans fundamentally misunderstand his project. He is not a pacifist, but a soldier; On Killing is less a celebration of non-violence than it is a how-to guide.

Grossman claims that modern armies had, without really understanding how, developed techniques to break down our natural resistance to killing. So, in a sense, his work merely theorizes about what our militaries are already doing. But he also argues that there is a certain percentage of men who, he said, don’t need such guidance to be able to kill. That’s the basis of the “sheepdog” trope. In his 2004 book On Combat, he explains:

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.

All of American Sniper can be summed up in those last two sentences.

Grossman has built a career running training sessions about killing for soldiers and police and really any other people who “walk the warrior’s path.” As he writes in On Combat, “If you in a war, you are a warrior. Is there a war on drugs? Is there a war on crime? Is there a war against terrorism?… Then you are in a war and you are a warrior.”

It’s worth thinking through these metaphors, particularly now that they’ve hit the big screen. What does it mean to call men with guns “sheepdogs”? Obviously, it makes the rest of us, as Grossman explains, “sheep,” feeble herd animals who require shepherding. We could never do what the warriors do—indeed, we can’t even comprehend it. “The sheep live in denial,’ writes Grossman, “that is what makes them sheep. They do not want to believe that there is evil in the world.”

This system is, more or less explicitly, a program for permanent militarism; by definition, the sheep can’t govern the sheepdogs. In American Sniper, the Kyle character has no time for those who question the value of the Iraq catastrophe. There’s evil in Baghdad; therefore, he must kill people, irrespective of the baah-ing of the flock.

Moreover, the metaphor provides a justification for military violence as an end in itself. That’s the whole message of American Sniper. By shooting hundreds of people, did the Chris Kyle character make the world a better place? Within the logic of the film, this question makes no sense. Kyle is a sheepdog precisely because he performs acts that most of us wouldn’t. The men he shoots matter only insofar as they reveal Kyle’s nature. Kyle’s ability to kill becomes, in and of itself, an act of heroism—one that doesn’t require external justification from those who can’t, by definition, understand it.

The Iraq War cost the U.S. trillions of dollars and devastated Iraq. But it did provide lots of opportunities for killing—something that American Sniper presents, to extraordinary box office success, as a kind of victory. Of course, that’s the other corollary of seeing the public as sheep. You’re always looking for opportunities to fleece them.