04/23/2012 12:32 pm ET Updated Jun 23, 2012

The Virtue of Being Whole

The published photos of U.S. soldiers holding up body parts of slain Afghan rebels depict acts that will further incite the Arab world against the United States. But they are also evidence of the horrors and tensions of war, of feeling exalted at being alive, of surviving thus far. Even more, these images are reminders, on many levels, of how far we have to go as a nation -- not just to live in a family of other nations, but also to live inside our own skin.

The photographs are 2 years old, and it's unclear how the people in them died and were dismembered. But by holding up body parts of the vanquished, the soldiers are not simply dehumanizing the dead, they are using contempt to overcome fear, guilt, and having to face the horror of what they did in battle. It is a triumph over responsibility, using contempt not only as a defense against guilt but also against a sense of responsibility and concern. Dehumanizing the enemy enables one to kill, and dismembering the dead makes it impossible to think of these body parts as once whole -- as once sons or fathers or husbands.

What is hardest and darkest about all this is what it unconsciously says about the psychic cost of this war, and of war in general: these soldiers are holding up aspects of their fragmented selves, of parts that represent what mayhem and willful slaughter has likely done to their own internal cohesiveness, their internal world. And now they become symbolic of a fragmented America that shoots people like Trayvon Martin with impunity and without guilt. It is an America that Bill Cosby understands when he says this isn't just about race, but about guns. It is about permission to kill being granted to the holder of a gun. It is about the fantasy that it's okay to kill, even.

But I want to focus on the soldiers themselves. The body parts held up by these soldiers sadly reflect their internal world -- a world necessarily fragmented to allow them to kill so mercilessly. These soldiers are too overwhelmed not to dehumanize the other. The tragic irony is that in doing so they also dehumanize themselves -- as seen in the photos. They survive by attacking the links that might otherwise connect people to one another -- their common humanity. They become internally delinked -- burying whatever internal conflicts they might have about killing, about good and bad. At its most primitive and basic level, they protect themselves from having to see an enemy as a whole person, as this attack on links devolves into dismembering the very joints and tendons that connect one body part to another.

In these pictures, we see outward evidence of inner fragmentation, of a need to externalize fragmented feelings, to disavow murder and destruction by dismembering it and triumphing over it. But what's more, we see a fragmented nation made up of fragmented selves -- of haters like Mitt Romney and Mitch McConnell who can't find a thoughtful word to say about President Obama.

One fundamental premise of Obama's presidency has been his push for change, for civility, to heal splits between warring political parties. He wants us to make links that can withstand the threats by some to tear apart our culture. The very existence of a black president is divisive, stirring up smoldering hatred -- not just in the South. But his message is the opposite -- informed by his ability to see more than one point of view, more than one side to an argument. He said, "The greatness of our democracy is grounded in our ability to move beyond our differences." But every time he says things like that he makes anxious those who need to see the world as completely divided into good and bad.

He is, as I've said in Obama on the Couch, a both/and president leading an either/or nation. But now, with these pictures, we see that the either/or nation itself is fragmenting further than ever -- and that these soldiers are the tragic victims of a process that is far beyond their control. No wonder there are so many suicides: when the body parts of victims coalesce into a whole person, the guilt and horror at what one has done returns in full force, overwhelming one's capacity to bear it.