‘How do we account for the rampant sexuality of war?’ This question, presciently posed at the turn of the century by the psychoanalyst Juliet Mitchell, is visited urgently in Nancy Spero’s War Series of 1966-1970, an extensive set of gouache and ink drawings produced in response to the Vietnam War. ‘Male bombs’ with cartoon erections, grotesquely extended, ejaculate murderously in ecstatic displays of sexual violence. Female bombs rain blood. Bombs shit infant heads. And in one drawing, Fuck (1966), silver jets trace a frenzied spiral in the sky, bearing on their wings the insignia not of U.S.A. but of F.U.C.K. Tiny, helpless, naked bodies in the throes of death are the quarry dangling from every fiery mouth—the nose of every plane transformed to a serpent’s maw—in a gruesome exhibition of sexualized killing.
Mercilessly entangling sex and violence, the War Series portrays war as a situation in which fantasy overwhelms the subject, but also the social. The unreality of war, to which seemingly every survivor and soldier’s account attests, is the effect of a socially orchestrated destruction of social bonds. As recently reiterated in the degradations inflicted by the US military at Abu Ghraib, the obscenity of war, to which Spero has so often alluded in her writings and her art (‘manifestos against a senseless obscene war’) is less an aberrant eruption of individual pathology, than a consistent expression of war violence. Those sadistic fantasies, often sexualized, repressed in the interests of civilization in time of peace, are tolerated, even elicited—appropriated–by the state itself as integral to the conduct of war. Spero represents sexual violence as a defining condition of war. In this she anticipates Mitchell’s recent reflection that sexual violence seems ‘automatically’ to accompany war violence.