Commentary: The Coup De Grace by Ambrose Bierce

This post is in response to a question sent in by a reader earlier today:

I’m currently taking a Biomedical Ethics course at the college. Your writings cover a wide range of topics and interests so I thought you would have an opinion about ethics as well.

On the first day of class we were required to read The Coup De Grace by Ambrose Bierce and discuss whether or not the characters in the story did the right thing. I’d really enjoy hearing your ideas about the ethics involved in the story.

My reply below will make little sense if you have not first read the piece in question.  The piece is about 2,100 words long and covers about 2 pages in a typical font size.  You may read it for free online here:  The Coup De Grace by Ambrose Bierce at

Here’s Wikipedia’s first paragraph about Bierce for those who’d like to understand a bit more before reading the piece in question:

Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce (born June 24, 1842;[2] died sometime after December 26, 1913)[1] was an American editorialist, journalist, short story writer, fabulist, and satirist. Today, he is probably best known for his short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and his satirical lexicon The Devil’s Dictionary. His vehemence as a critic, his motto “Nothing matters” and the sardonic view of human nature that informed his work all earned him the nickname “Bitter Bierce”.[3]    (Read the Wikipedia article)

What follows is my response to the question.


The story highlights that consequence of mankind in which he is forced to operate without omniscience.  Captain Madwell could not know what would happen in the future.  All he could know was the situation as he could manage to perceive it in his own present.  Given this limited knowledge, he had but two general choices:  to act or not to act.  Choosing to act, he had no means to do anything but to kill Caffal Halcrow, as we are informed that he had no means of saving him.

Had he chosen not to act, he could have reasoned that Halcrow’s agony would have continued until interrupted by unconsciousness or death, or by some other unforeseen and unforeseeable event, such as a time travel visit from Star Trek’s Dr. McCoy, whose medical technology might have been adequate to save Caffal.  Being a Captain, Madwell was already familiar with the cold likelihoods of war.  This situation, however obvious may have been the mortality of Caffal’s wounds, caused Madwell to hesitate, perhaps in hope that the normal likelihoods would not apply here after all.  If the ultimate decision were to be a mercy killing, however, any lengthy deliberation upon that decision would prolong the very agony that gave rise to the dilemma in the first place.

In this sense, Caffal Halcrow had fallen victim to the chance of war.  Aimed bullets miss sometimes miss their intended targets.  Missed shots sometimes hit unintended targets.  Some executions of strategy go better than expected, and others worse.  The chance of weather either helps or hinders.  Rations, re-supply, and sickness can all trump superiority of training or skill, and sickness.  So can mere human error, such as being lost or misreading a battle dispatch.  Caffal had already fallen victim to unforeseen circumstance when the hogs helped themselves to his bowels.  This was not any person’s fault, except by the most distant of associations, such as whether the war ought to have been fought in the first place, or whether someone ought to have previously killed those hogs for the general danger presented by their presence in society.  And now, Caffal happened upon yet another meeting with accident, as Captain Madwell, who might just as well have been dead himself, or who might have taken another path, now stood at his side deciding what to do.

Being mortal, Madwell could only choose from among his natural options. One of those options would be to remove himself altogether from the situation, leaving Caffal wholly to whatever chance may befall him otherwise.  Madwell could not know what would happen immediately upon walking away without having interceded, but he most certainly could have expected that Caffal would eventually end up dead, for all people die, barring the possibility of some elusive supernatural “rapture” event. It was ultimately, therefore, a matter of timing, in the interim of which, Caffal’s suffering was the primary focus of attention.

Having no way to prolong Caffal’s life, but only a way to end it swiftly, Madwell might have pondered the possibility of other help arriving.  Had they arrived in time, however, this would have been no guarantee that Caffal would have survived the surgeons.  It could well have been the case that a rescue for Caffal from the battlefield would have played out into a crueler fate than what befell him at the hands of Madwell’s timelier solution.

Thus do we see that Caffal’s fate fell into Madwell’s hands, much as the fate of a coma victim might fall into the hands of his next of kin, who is charged with deciding whether he will live indefinitely on life support or be allowed to die.  In Madwell’s dilemma, the inconsolable agony of Caffal was certainly a complicating factor.  Yet it fell to Madwell nonetheless to decide whether and when to act.

Caffal had already fallen victim to:

  • A government straying from its Constitutional authority, which straying encompassed the direct cause of the war in which he was fighting.
  • His own practically-irreversible decision to enlist in the Army.
  • Being wounded in battle by way of whatever circumstances led to it.  (He must have been previously wounded, for no one volunteers his bowels to hogs if he has a choice in the matter.)
  • Being partially eaten by hogs.

And now the next step in his fate would be determined by the decision of his non-omniscient friend and commanding officer, Madwell.

It is important to understand that Caffal had almost certainly been an “accident” himself to others that very day.  Had he made every decision impeccably with the foresight of omniscience?  Or did he make choices in the immediate pressure of the battle that would have proven to be less than optimal in patient and thorough analysis after the fact?  Were any Union soldiers killed or wounded as a result of Caffal’s decisions that day?  Were any Confederate soldiers spared from death or injury as a result of Caffal’s decisions?  Both are likely, for that is the nature of battle.

Use of the Reflective and Algorithmic Minds to simulate the all possible solutions with a view toward choosing the best real-time course of action in battle is a luxury no one can afford, for these Type II cognitive processes are “power hogs” and they are slow.  This is why soldiers train in advance, so that the Autonomous Mind can handle the bulk of the situations quickly in battle.  Error, therefore, is increasingly likely when we are in a hurry, and almost certain when we are in a hurry and untrained.

I am reminded of a gut-wrenching note I read at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC some years ago.  It seems that a Veteran had left a note for a deceased comrade, apologizing that when he had pulled that soldier (already wounded) out of the line of fire, he had no way to know that it was into a field of unexpected crossfire.  His already-wounded friend was killed by that crossfire, and the decision had haunted the survivor ever since.

This is the nature of emergency; it tests the Automonous Mind—the “who we are already” mind—and it reveals its limitations.  And when we find ourselves in a situation for which we are not already trained with predetermined procedures or solutions, we stumble and stutter in search of a means to find “a handle on the moment”.  Once Caffal was wounded and attacked by the hogs, his circumstances would present just such a stunning dilemma for Madwell.  Madwell demonstrated with the horse that he had a predetermined solution already in place, but when it came to his friend, no such course of action was predetermined, as far as we are told.   And if it was, then what we witness is Madwell faltering, perhaps in hope that some other viable-but-not-yet-thought-of possibility was in play.

All this simply goes to show that there do occur in life some situations that are beyond the convenience of clear-cut “arm chair” ethics, and for which it is difficult to be prepared in advance.

Here are the ethical considerations that come to mind with regard to this particular story.  There are undoubtedly more, but this is what I thought of in a short period of reflection.  NOTE: Since matters of death often bring up questions of God and the afterlife for so many, I have also ventured a short way down that path in the latter of these considerations:

  1. Was Madwell wrong to think that killing for mercy is as valid a human act as killing for war?
  2. Had Madwell walked away without intervention, how long would Caffal have lived?
  3. Had Madwell walked away without intervention, how long would Caffal have suffered?
  4. Had Madwell walked away without intervention, would he have regretted it later?
  5. Is Madwell to be blamed for not having killed Caffal sooner, thus cutting his agony shorter?
  6. Is any “fault” to be assigned to the medics and the Major, who did not arrive earlier than they did?  What decisions had they been wrestling with that might have brought them to the scene earlier had they chosen differently?
  7. Was Caffal’s grabbing of the blade merely an act of reflex, or was it indicative that he did not wish the mercy killing after all?
  8. Should any of the men involved have refused to fight in this war on moral or legal grounds, thus avoiding this particular event altogether?
  9. Should Madwell have expected that, even though the burial squads were retiring from duty as workable daylight waned (Paragraph 3), hospital attendants were indeed likely to find Caffal in short order?
  10. Is the gravity of Madwell’s solution affected, one way or the other, by whatever would prove to be the reality of an afterlife for Caffal?  Suppose, for example, that Caffal was moments away from eternal  and conscious bliss as he lay suffering from his wounds?  Or suppose, alternatively, that Caffal were moments away from eternal damnation, but that he could have avoided it if only he had had time to live a bit longer and to change his ways.
  11. Did Madwell have any reason to believe that if he personally stayed out of the situation, that God himself (or anyone else) would intervene on behalf of Caffal?
  12. Was Madwell wrong to think that such decisions are the rightful domain of mankind?  (As opposed, perhaps, to God or to chance.)
  13. Did God have a specific will in this situation?  And if so, did Madwell violate that will, or act in accordance with it?
  14. Had God intended for Caffal to be saved, why did God not intervene to save him from Madwell’s eventual solution?
  15. Had God intended for Caffal to live, why not save him from the hogs?

I posit that we, as Madwell, are simply without any way to know these things.  Nowhere has it been demonstrated that mercy killings are condemnable.  And no study has been published on how to know when is the right time and situation for a mercy killing.  Madwell’s tormented considerations were brushing against the very limits of his own mortality—into matters to which the living are not generally privy.

As I was reading the account (while knowing that it would portray some ethical dilemma at length), I was irritated at Madwell’s failure to kill Caffal immediately upon discovering four things:

  1. Caffal’s wound was “mortal”.  (Paragraph 14)
  2. Caffal’s agony was excruciating. (Paragraph 15)
  3. Caffal was non-verbal, demonstrating no likelihood of any meaningful dialog.  (Paragraph 15)
  4. Caffal’s look of despair was reminiscent of others who are longing to be killed.  (Paragraph 15)

Madwell’s dispatching of the horse may well have jarred him into admitting the obvious, that Caffal’s best hope was to die sooner than later.  That the killing had to be carried out with the sword is not important.  Caffal’s writhing and grabbing of the blade is only important if it was an expression of the will to live, rather than mere reflex.  Neither is the arrival of Major Creedlowe and the medics immediately thereafter an important fact if Caffal’s wounds were truly mortal.  The fact that the Major was Caffal’s brother is not important unless we consider the possibility that some meaningful communication might have occurred between them.

If I know myself well enough, I suppose I would have killed Caffal, too.  And like Madwell, I most certainly would have paused at least for a moment to consider whether I was missing some possibility that was not obvious at the moment.  I probably would not have delayed as long as Madwell (I tell myself).  With the revolver being empty, I, too, would have used the sword.

Just as the Israelis at Masada had no decree in their scriptures against suicide, but thought it a better solution than to suffer torture at the hands of the encroaching Romans, we are without any other-worldly say so on the question of mercy killing.  In war, from what I understand anecdotally, it is a fairly common practice.

In this story, it fell upon Madwell to decide what to make of his own presence in this scene of Caffal’s life.  Madwell made the best decision he could make in a short time, just as if Madwell had had to choose which of several drowning people to pull first into a lifeboat—at the risk of the lives of the others.  One can only know what he can know, and can only do what he can do.  Madwell made a merciful choice.  And mercy, in my view, is a good trait for mankind.

What an ironic pity that it was a lack of mercy and a lack of respect for human life, dignity, and freedom that led to that war in the first place.  (And I’m not talking about slavery.)


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