THE VOLUNTEER ARMY expects to bear the brunt of danger on behalf of the country in any war. But when failed leadership turns volunteers into conscripts, soldiers have every right to feel misused. President Bush has compared the war against terrorism to the 20th-century struggles against totalitarianism and communism, calling it "the great challenge of our time." But he has refused to adjust his policies to those stakes. And the first casualty of this crippling disconnect between rhetoric and reality is the U.S. Army.

The latest evidence of institutional strain was the Army's recent announcement that thousands more troops will be ordered to extend their duty well beyond their expected discharge dates. Soldiers, including reservists, whose units are deployed or redeployed to Iraq or Afghanistan will be expected to complete those tours of one year or more and an additional 90 days, even if they would have been scheduled for release months earlier. The Army is doing this for the same reason it extended the Iraq deployments of units that were supposed to have been sent home, depleted its force in South Korea and even explored sending an elite training regiment into combat: It's short of troops.

The president's failure to adequately staff the armed forces is just one way in which he fails his own commitment to what he called last week "the imperative of our age." The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, changed Mr. Bush's view of the world, but he never adjusted his fiscal strategy; he continues to reduce the tax burden on the wealthy and leave the government without adequate resources for the fight. He has yet to invest the funds and energy, on a scale appropriate to an existential struggle, in public diplomacy, Arab-language training, foreign student exchanges, nuclear materials control and many other ventures that are key to eventual victory. And he has yet to acknowledge that the downsized military he favored in 2000 is no longer suitable in 2004.

The reason for this failure -- whether an unwillingness to face the political consequences of demanding sacrifice, or an inability to let go of cherished views on military transformation, tax cuts and the like -- matters less than the consequences. We support Mr. Bush's "vision of dignity and freedom in every culture," but he undermines the cause and feeds only cynicism when he refuses to match the tools to the task. More immediately he places an unfair burden on those in uniform and their families.