David Silbey’s A War of Frontier Empire is a narrative history of the complexity and shifting definitions of the war between the U.S. and the Philippines in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Silbey weaves the threads of impact together, arguing that for the U.S., “It was a war that brought together the dominant American experience….the chaotic and defining expansion westward, with a new…and uncomfortable imperial ambition” (xiii). For the Philippines, the war resulted in a culturally and socially fractured collection of islands becoming a “self-conceived nation” via a shared experience of revolution, war and insurgency.
Silbey is careful to not label the conflict as just an insurgency, or a larger war, or just a revolution. Rather, he describes three distinct conflicts each with their own characterization and description. The first was the war between the Spanish and the allied U.S. and Filipino forces. The second was a conventional war between the U.S. Army and Navy and the Philippine Republic’s Army of Liberation. The third was a guerilla war fought between the U.S. forces and insurgent and disparate alliances of groups broken off from the Army of Liberation and elsewhere.
Organized into six chapters, Silbey first traces the Spanish history of the Philippines, noting the influence of Catholicism and Spanish legal codes on the native people, as well as the distinct social structure and multiple languages that were in place. At the same time, the U.S. was beginning to conceive of itself as a naval and imperial power (influenced by Alfred Thayer Mahan’s book) that coincided with their vision of exceptionalism and frontier acquisition.