May 17, 2024

Don’t ever forget your Grade 1 buddies: they’re both rare and precious!

Posted by WARREN PERLEY – Editor,
Writing from Montreal

Reconnecting with a close childhood friend whom you’ve known for six decades is always a memorable, heart-warming experience. Especially when that buddy happens to be an eminent journalist who specializes in analysing geopolitical security, intelligence, and military issues – and you are an editor on the lookout for interesting, little-reported stories.

So it came to pass that Robert Karniol,who was Asia/Pacific bureau chief for Jane’s Defence Weekly for 20 years, touched base with me upon his return to Montreal and offered this week to contribute a fascinating story to our independent, ad-free journalism site.

And not just any story, but one hidden in the opaque shroud of Second World War history involving military action contemplated at the end of the war in August 1945 by then-Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin to carve up Japan by invading Hokkaido, the northern-most island of the Japanese mainland.

If allowed to happen, the Soviet’s occupation would have altered world history and likely prevented Japan from playing its current key role in helping the U.S. and Europe to contain the strategic risks that China poses in east Asia.

To understand the importance of Japan to the West’s current strategic posture vis-à-vis China, one need look no further than the June 1, 2023 headline on an analysis written by Elli-Katharina Pohlkamp published by The European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). ‘The new central front: Japan’s special role in the West’s strategic rivalry with China’, reads the headline. The ECFR is an award-winning international think-tank that conducts cutting-edge independent research on European foreign and security policy.

As readers, we should all appreciate the fact that a journalist with Robert’s intellect, experience, and gravitas is able and willing to provide us with salient geopolitical insights in the free section of based on historical facts that most of us would otherwise be unaware of.

Of course, for someone who has known Robert since we started Grade 1 together at Bedford School so many decades ago, his intellect, drive, and guts come as no surprise. Robert was always a leader from his days as head of the safety patrol in elementary school to his stint as student council president at Outremont High School.

Grade 5 class photo of Robert Karniol and Warren Perley.

Perhaps his bold nature had something to do with his large, muscular frame as a child: he was usually a foot taller than every other kid at Bedford School. In our Grade 5 class photo (posted above) I can be seen standing on a bench in the last row, not much taller than Robert who was standing on the floor in the row below me.

I also recall that Robert wasn’t scared to stand up for himself or his buddies in the face of bullying. There was one incident in Grade 6 where he met up in the schoolyard after class to duke it out with an older kid. They boxed for about 20 minutes at which point Robert announced that he was late for his Bar Mitzvah training with Cantor Berkowitz. Same time, same place tomorrow, he yelled at his rival. Sure enough, this battle went on after class for three days – at which point the older kid had enough, telling me candidly, “Hey, your buddy isn’t normal!”

Be that as it may, he certainly seemed to come from a normal family – his father, Martin, and his mother, Agnes, doted on their only child whom they likely considered to be a gift from heaven after they managed to survive the Holocaust by using forged documents in order to escape death at the hands of the Nazis in Budapest.

Agnes was born in Hungary, but Martin was born in Czechoslovakia where he was part of a community of ex-pat Hungarians. Being quick-witted as well as a polyglot – he spoke about 10 languages including Czech, Russian, Hungarian, German, Hebrew, Swedish, and English – must have been of considerable assistance in helping Martin and his wife avoid arrest and capture on a daily basis for the almost six years of the Second World War.

In 1948, they joined Martin’s sister in Sweden, where Robert was born on December 31,1950. By then, they had made up their minds to leave Europe. Martin presented Agnes with a choice: move to Israel where he had a nephew or make a fresh start in Canada. Agnes figured Canada was a safer choice.

The rest, as they say, is history. Robert thrived in Montreal academically, socially, athletically (he was an excellent rugger player) and, at times, pugilistically. His high school year book listed his ambition as “to go beserk and run screaming through the halls”.

Is it any wonder that a lad with such unbridled enthusiasm jumped into the journalistic minefield of the heart-pumping 70s era of Watergate after graduating with what he calls “a useless” diploma in English literature at McGill University?

He says writing about military and security issues for Jane’s Defence Weekly for two decades out of Bangkok was peachy fine by him, given his sometimes contrarian personality that seems to thrive on exposing corruption of the rich and powerful lurking in the shadows.

Along the way, he even managed to carve out the time to woo a lovely Thai lady named Na, who likely consented to marry him before she realized that his high school leaving ambition had been “to go beserk and run screaming through the halls.”

Together, they created a thoughtful, erudite son named Kim who has made archaeology his chosen profession, although his dad likely often counsels him from his own experience that there is no life like the adrenaline-laced world of spys and spooks.

With his return to Montreal in 2009, Robert came full circle: he is back to schmoozing with his Grade 1 buddies while having never relinquished his journalistic curiosity and peripatetic cultural interests. Welcome back, Rob: hope to share more conversations over beers and look forward to more journalistic collaborations.