From “traditional” war to “gray zone” tactics, the levels of war continue to demonstrate relevance.
Here is one way of thinking about war that has deep historical roots, but important contemporary relevance.
How do we think about war? “Seeing the elephant,” was a popular nineteenth-century catchphrase. It meant investing a lot of effort to see or do something and then concluding it hadn’t been worth it. The term was usually applied to the experience of war.
The phrase was often paired with the ancient Hindu parable of the blind men who encounter an elephant for the first time. Each described the animal differently, according to which part of the elephant they touched. This aptly explained the challenge of analyzing and describing war, so much was shaped by perspective and experience.
In practice, nineteenth-century military histories reflected the elephant parable. In the West, Napoleon Bonaparte was the historian’s elephant in the room, the dominant topic. What complicated understanding the Napoleonic way of war was that Bonaparte did pretty much everything there was to do in fighting a war. He commanded troops in battle. He directed protracted operations over vast distances. He was his empire’s strategist making all the big decisions about how the ways, means and ends of France’s way of war would be employed.