ONE HUNDRED years ago on Memorial Day, Oliver Wendell Holmes said that his Civil War generation had been ''touched with fire.'' Today John Wheeler knows very well what he meant.
Between 1962 and 1972, when Wheeler and his generation were coming of age, fire seemed to be everywhere: Fire in the streets of Watts, Chicago, and many college towns; calls for increased firepower in Vietnam; people reading ''Fire in the Lake,'' Frances Fitzgerald's popular study of the war.
By the time the decade was over, Wheeler had gone to Vietnam (via West Point and the Harvard Business School) and had lost several close friends in the war. In 1976, by helping establish a Southeast Asia Memorial on the grounds of West Point, Wheeler made sure these friends were not forgotten. Two years later he found himself chairman of the Vietnam Memorial Fund. At the time assets of the fund totaled $144.50.
By 1982, though, Wheeler and a core of dedicated vets had galvanized contributors and politicians, and, despite a firestorm of opposition to its long , low, unconventional design, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington had been dedicated. It is now the most visited monument in Washington, according to the National Park Service.
If today John Wheeler feels caught up in a swirl of '60s retrospection, part of it is of his own making. In addition to his regular job as special counsel to the Securities and Exchange Commission, Wheeler is director of the Vietnam Veteran's Leadership Foundation, a project President Reagan backed in 1980, which helps provide support and direction for the people who fought in Vietnam. Mr. Wheeler also has started a monthly report called the Century Generation (published in Washington, D.C.) to discuss the past and future of his peer group.
In a Monitor interview, Wheeler is emphatic that his generation must sort out what it went through in the '60s - a time when ''the lid blew off our culture,'' as he puts it. His generation, Mr. Wheeler insists, is fractured into ''different political islands'' that could become further alienated, for example , by a major war in Central America.
The ten years of thinking he has devoted to this subject has its fullest expression in his newly published first book, ''Touched With Fire: The Future of the Vietnam Generation'' (Franklin Watts). Though serious, the book is not a scholarly study. Rather, it is a cross between a plea and a pep talk, aimed point-blank at a generation Wheeler believes is not living up to its potential. The largest, best-educated generation ever has put idealism on the shelf, he says, when it should be contributing something substantial.
Wheeler himself comes across as an average guy - a family man who has spent more time riding on a lawnmower than riding in a limousine. He knocked out his book during his three-week vacation last July (perhaps one reason it gums up in places). He regards it as ''an effort to get our generation to focus on its problems, enmities, and divisions while we still have time. We need to do this before world and domestic events overtake us.''
First on Wheeler's list of priorities is achieving a proper recognition of the contribution made by Vietnam veterans. Other priorities:
* A hope that the women's movement will be able to declare victory in its battle for equality and then channel its formidable energies into dealing with other problems such as hunger, drug abuse, drunk driving.
* A fuller discussion among his contemporaries of what really constitutes manhood and of what principles are worth dying for.
* More leadership from the Vietnam generation to meet the demands of today.
James Fallows, who covers Washington for the Atlantic, calls Wheeler a reconciler. He adds that Wheeler has asked, ''in full awareness of everything that happened during those years - the bad decisions, wrong choices: 'How is there a way we can build on these experiences?' ''
In his book and in conversation Wheeler displays a spiritual orientation that he dates back the day he left the Army. He felt ''a dim compulsion,'' he remembers, to drive to a seminary and investigate schooling. Although he did not become a minister (he married one), he describes the year he spent studying there as an answer to ''a prayer for healing.'' Wheeler also came to feel that ''you cannot really understand the Vietnam experience without realizing a need for the New Testament, or some kind of 'good news.' '' He believes a large portion of his generation could benefit from that lesson. ''The foundation that our generation has to build on is spiritual,'' he says.
If Wheeler's book accomplishes its purpose, it might go a long way toward alleviating the feeling that nags some of his contemporaries: that those who fought and died in Vietnam did so in vain.
Wheeler believes in another possibility: Perhaps a generation that can surmount the trauma, divisiveness, and disillusionment of the Vietnam era can provide the kind of thoughtful, constructive, regenerative approach needed to meet the challenges of the '80s and beyond.